Take half a loaf in Zimbabwe

Despite violence, the opposition should agree to a presidential runoff election.

In Zimbabwe, despair flows with the force of the Victoria Falls on its northern border. The African country used to sparkle like the rainbow over the falls until strongman Robert Mugabe led it to economic, social, and political ruin. Now there's a chance to turn him out – if it isn't lost in a mist of despair.

The most recent cause for popular dismay is parliamentary and national elections that have turned deadly. After 28 years in power, Mr. Mugabe was defeated in the March 29 poll – great joy! – but apparently not by enough to avoid a runoff that would feature him again.

It took five weeks for Zimbabwe's election commission to release "official" results for the presidential race. During that time, and since, Mugabe supporters have brutally attacked his opponents. Thousands of people have been injured – beaten unconscious, their homes burned – and at least 25 killed in political intimidation.

This on top of a decade of decline in which a country that was once Africa's breadbasket now barely survives on food aid. About a third of its population has fled the country and its 80 percent joblessness and hyperinflation.

Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, is preparing for a runoff, although a date has yet to be set. But the main opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, has not said whether it will take part. It claims that its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won outright. But the official (delayed) tally put him at 47.9 percent – not the required 50 percent plus 1 to avoid a runoff. Mugabe got 42.3 percent.

Why in the world would Mr. Tsvangirai participate in another election when Mugabe's thugs are trying so violently to dissuade opponents from voting again? Why should he trust its fairness?

Election boycotts are tempting as a statement of moral defiance and unwillingness to legitimize a flawed process. Such was the discussion in Pakistan last year, but the opposition parties took part anyway and now they are in power. Zimbabwe is not Pakistan, but this point is universal: If you don't participate, you can't win.

The MDC should take part in a runoff. True, the violence taints the outcome, and Mugabe may well muscle a win.

But the MDC can be buoyed that the ruling party at least acknowledged defeat in the first round, so Mugabe's legitimacy is shot. Also, election officials followed a new provision to post results outside polling places, a sign that they were willing to accept some accountability.

More important, most Zimbabweans – a total of 58.2 percent, according to an independent count – voted against Mugabe. That majority must not be buried by an assumption that people are too discouraged or frightened to stand up again. Who knows? A Mugabe defeat could be so overwhelming that it couldn't be denied.

The international community – Zimbabwe's neighbors, the African Union, and the UN – must now make an all-out effort to insist on impartial election monitors and other measures to make a runoff as free and fair as possible.

It spoke with one voice when it demanded that the election results be released, which eventually happened. To accept defeat now would dissuade the MDC from taking part and rob Zimbabweans of even the opportunity to finish the job they began so many weeks ago.

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