Be prepared to help Zimbabwe

Elections could mark the beginning of the end of Mugabe's rule. The world must be ready.

One thing is certain about the March 29 elections in Zimbabwe. They won't be fair. Strongman Robert Mugabe is seeing to that. But what of the outcome? The possibility exists that it could trigger the end of his ruinous rule.

The imminent demise of the Mugabe era has been hinted at before. A year ago, an editorial in this publication said that unprecedented pressure was building on the octogenarian president to step aside after 27 years in power. The US ambassador spoke of a "new spirit of resistance" among the country's 13 million people.

At that time, inflation in Zimbabwe topped 1,700 percent. Now it rages at more than 100,000 percent. People rush to a near-empty grocery store with a bag of money to buy bread at Z$7 million a loaf, only to find it's Z$25 million.

A decade ago, this southern African nation exported food. Agriculture was the backbone of the economy. But after Mr. Mugabe expropriated white-owned farms and handed them over to cronies who knew little about farming, the economy began to tank. Now Africa's former breadbasket receives food aid. Unemployment is stuck at around 80 percent. About a third of the population has fled the country – fled hunger, power outages, and the lowest life expectancy rate for women in the world (34 years).

Yet the politically wily Mugabe holds on. His legacy as Zimbabwe's 1980 liberator from white rule makes neighbors, such as South Africa, hesitate to apply pressure for reform. And Mugabe's internal control of security forces, his brutal tactics, and the rigging of elections prevent the country's political opposition from toppling him.

What is different this year, however, is open rebellion from within his own party, ZANU-PF. Simba Makoni, a former finance minister, criticizes the leadership as "preoccupied with staying in power. We don't look at the suffering." Mr. Makoni was expelled from the powerful ZANU-PF politburo when he decided to run for president. He's quietly gaining support from security and intelligence forces.

A house divided eventually falls, but when and how the house of Mugabe will collapse is anybody's guess. He's redrawn voting districts to favor himself. He's buying support with food and tractors and allowing only friendly election monitors. He's placing police inside voting stations.

Still, there's a question as to whether officials who control the voting process will re-rig in favor of Makoni.

Mugabe needs to win 51 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. An independent poll shows opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai with 28 percent of the vote, Mugabe with 20 percent, and Mr. Makoni with 9 percent.

Africa and the West need to adopt the Boy Scout motto and "be prepared" for a transition ahead. The International Crisis Group, a nonprofit analysis group that seeks to prevent deadly conflict, warns of possible violence, especially in a runoff or dispute.

The world was caught flat-footed at the violence that erupted after Kenya's disputed elections Dec. 27. The African Union should be ready to send negotiators to Zimbabwe to mediate a transition of power. The West should send clear signals of willingness to help – economically and politically – in a transition if Zimbabwe is ready to move toward reform.

Mugabe will be out some day. The world should be ready.

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