Zimbabwe: A test case for Africa

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,” Mugabe warned this week. “We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot. How can a pen fight with a gun?”

Amid such threatening talk 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 prosperous economies.

But in the past 10 years, its economy has shrunk in half and hyperinflation tops 1 million per cent. 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 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, and thousands displaced.

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. This week, the UN sent a high-powered African envoy, Haile Menkerios, to assess the situation. Although special observer missions from the US, 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 him 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. —The Chirstian Science Monitor