Zimbabwe's election: a battle for democracy and a test for Africa

If Tsvangirai wins despite Mugabe's heavy-handed tactics, it'll be a historic victory.

Bullets or ballots? That's the stark question now facing Zimbabwe ahead of its runoff presidential election on June 27. The vote is more than a contest between President Robert Mugabe and opposition challenger Morgan Tsvangirai. It is a battle for the country's faltering democracy.

"We are prepared to fight for our country and to go to war for it," Mr. Mugabe warned this week. "We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot. How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?"

Amid such threatening talk – and reports of intensified violence – the only hope that the people's choice will prevail is if election observers step up to create a safe climate for voting.

As a reporter who covered Zimbabwe for more than 20 years, I witnessed the country's hopeful rise and tragic deterioration. In 1980, it emerged from a bloody race war that ended the white minority rule of then-Rhodesia to become a stable democracy and one of Africa's most stable and prosperous economies.

But in the past 10 years, its economy has shrunk in half and hyperinflation tops 1 million percent. Life expectancy, meanwhile, has dropped to 36 years, one of the world's lowest. Once known as Africa's breadbasket, Zimbabwe has depended on food aid for the past seven years. Now it's reeling from state terror as Mr. Mugabe, in office for 28 years, clings to power.

The people of Zimbabwe badly want to restore their democracy but, as things stand, the crucial poll on June 27 cannot possibly be free and fair.

Mugabe has unleashed sweeping state violence that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party says has killed more than 65 of its supporters, with hundreds more tortured and thousands displaced. Mr. Tsvangirai, the MDC candidate, has been repeatedly detained and harassed, while top officials of his party have been jailed and numerous rallies banned. Tsvangirai has not been able to campaign on local radio, television or in daily newspapers, all of which are controlled by the state.

The roll of registered voters is a mess, with partial audits showing 20 percent of the voters are either deceased or listed more than once. This allows ample opportunity for vote-rigging, as the elections are administered by military officers who firmly support Mugabe. Tsvangirai could boycott the runoff on grounds that conditions are grossly skewed against him. But that would only allow Mugabe to claim an unopposed victory. Tsvangirai has said that speaking to supporters – many with broken limbs and fractured skulls – convinced him to stand strong.

Yet the situation is not completely hopeless. Zimbabweans are so fed up with Mugabe's ruinous rule that they may vote overwhelmingly against him and even the most blatant rigging will not be able to mask his loss. That is what happened in the March 29 elections when the conditions were almost as unfair, yet the MDC succeeded in winning control of parliament. Tsvangirai won more votes than Mugabe, but he did not reach the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a runoff.

International observers can play a vital role in helping Zimbabweans to vote their choice. Mugabe has tightly restricted these observers, allowing missions only from the 14-nation Southern African Development Community, the African Union, and a few other friendly nations.

While the African observers have in the past indulged Mugabe by endorsing flawed elections, they are becoming more critical. Reports of the recent violence have spurred the Africans to double the size of their delegations to this election.

This week, the United Nations sent a high-powered African envoy, Haile Menkerios, to assess the situation. Although special observer missions from the United States, Britain, and other European countries have been barred, their diplomats in Harare can view the polls. The presence of serious observers should force Mugabe's thugs to curtail their violence. This will create a climate of safety and encourage people to vote.

The observers can also see if Mugabe sticks to the transparency of the March 29 elections. All votes were counted in front of observers at the polling stations where they were cast, and the results were publicly posted on the spot. This prevented state agents from fiddling with the votes.

Pressure from fellow Africans and the UN, as well as from the US and Britain, may convince Mugabe that patience with his oppression is wearing thin. He may accede to abide by enough standards of electoral fairness to allow the will of the Zimbabwean people to be registered.

If Tsvangirai wins this election, despite all the unfair advantages Mugabe enjoys, it will be a historic victory for democracy in Zimbabwe and, indeed, for all of Africa.

Andrew Meldrum, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, reported from Zimbabwe for The Economist and The Guardian between 1980 and 2003.

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