Vote counters in Zimbabwe have delayed releasing results from Saturday's election, and incumbent Robert Mugabe's riot police are out in force in case violence breaks out as it did in Kenya last December after that country's flawed presidential vote. It all looks eerily similar to the 2002 and 2005 elections, which saw Zimbabwe's opposition appear to pull ahead of Mr. Mugabe, only to have the vote count suspended. When it restarted, the strongman pulled out a tainted victory.
Election returns posted outside polling places in about a third of the country show the opposition winning, including in some former Mugabe strongholds. But Mr. Mugabe's spokesman claims that any the release of local precinct results is "illegal" and that only the results from the central election office will be valid. Mr. Mugabe's office issued a menacing statement that if Morgan Tsvangirai, the main opposition leader, dared to declare victory, "it is called a coup d'état and we all know how coups are handled."
Mr. Mugabe, 84, insists he will step down if he loses, but no one believes he has any intention of doing so. He fully realizes that strongmen ranging from Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez have in the past miscalculated the amount of fraud necessary to steal an election. The lengthy delay in releasing official results may simply represent his even more frantic efforts to stuff ballot boxes.
Mr. Mugabe has done everything possible to rig the election, from stacking the Electoral Commission with his cronies to gerrymandering districts so that his rural supporters carry much more weight than city dwellers. A last-minute presidential decree allowed policemen to enter polling stations, ostensibly to help illiterate voters cast their ballots. The change was a blatant violation of an agreement Mr. Mugabe signed with the opposition only weeks before.
Then there is the vote fraud. In one district in Harare, the capital, independent election observers representing the Pan-African Parliament found that "out of the 24,678 registered voters, more than 8,450 have been registered . . . [on] deserted land with a few scattered wooden sheds."
Even though voter rolls are stuffed with the names of the dead or nonexistent, leaked documents from the government's official printer found that 9 million ballots were ordered for the 5.9 million people registered to vote. Mugabe opponents say these "ghost ballots" will give the government a ready means of coming up with any result they desire.
George Chiweshe, chairman of the Electoral Commission, admits that the voter roll "is in shambles" but nonetheless insists it is credible. His office is telling reporters that the final results of Saturday's voting may not be known for a few days.
That doesn't pass the smell test for Marwick Khumalo, head of the Pan-African Parliament observer team. "I have no doubt that the large part if not all results are known. It is frustrating," he told reporters. He warned that the delay has the potential of "upsetting a very peaceful electoral process."
I visited Zimbabwe in the 1980s and observed its largely peaceful and successful transition from white domination to black rule. But all that has changed.
Even before the collapse of apartheid, Mr. Mugabe massacred 25,000 members of the minority Ndebele tribe using his North Korean-trained troops. He then created a virtual one-party state after political rival Joshua Nkomo fled the country, fearing assassination.
Mr. Mugabe didn't touch the economy or basic civil liberties until 2000, when--following voter rejection of his proposed constitution--he initiated the confiscation of private farmland. The confiscation has led to famine and police terror and prompted almost a third of the country's 12 million people to flee. None of those who fled were eligible to vote in Saturday's election.
Zimbabwe has slipped into economic chaos. Inflation has reached 100,000%. Meat, produce, cooking oil and basic medicines are usually available only on the black market. The United Nations estimates that four million Zimbabweans will need food handouts by next year. A high school teacher admitted to London's Times that she is selling sexual services to Mugabe henchmen in order to buy food for her children. She claimed three-quarters of her colleagues are doing the same.
Nonetheless, it was jarring last summer to hear Archbishop Pius Ncube, then the head of Zimbabwe's million Catholics, urge Britain, the former colonial power, to invade the country: "I think it is justified for Britain to raid Zimbabwe and remove Mugabe," he told Western reporters. "We should do it ourselves, but there's too much fear. I'm ready to lead the people, guns blazing, but the people are not ready." Shortly after he made that statement, a videotape of Archbishop Ncube in bed with a woman was released to the media. He was forced to resign his church position and has made no further political statements.
No matter the election result, there is no real prospect of direct Western intervention in Zimbabwe. But there are things that can be done to exploit the growing divisions among Mr. Mugabe's politburo. As a sign of those strains, former Mugabe finance minister Simba Makoni openly broke with his patron earlier this year and ran against him in Saturday's election.
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown should consider creating a foreign aid package that would be contingent on Mr. Mugabe's colleagues engineering his departure. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who this weekend called Mr. Mugabe's regime a "disgrace," could also offer support for restoring some sanity to a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
But the real responsibility for ushering Mr. Mugabe off the stage rests with the African Union and neighboring South Africa, the economic engine of the continent. Until now, both have been soft on Mr. Mugabe's tyranny, with South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki using only "quiet diplomacy" to try to broker a power-sharing agreement--an effort that has clearly failed.
But there are signs that South Africa may soon change its tactics. Aziz Pahad, its deputy minister of foreign affairs, admits Zimbabwe cannot afford another disputed election. The new chairman of Mr. Mbeki's ruling African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, is much more of a critic of Mr. Mugabe. Mr. Zuma's trade union supporters picket the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria every day.
It's certainly in South Africa's interest to assert itself if Zimbabwe comes unglued. Mr. Mbeki's government admits it has contingency plans for millions of Zimbabwean refugees who could stream across the border in coming months.
It would be far better for all concerned if Africans themselves prevented that descent into chaos. After Kenya's near-collapse earlier this year, it's time Africa's leaders realize their future chances at enhanced foreign investment and international lending are linked to what they do to prevent a further catastrophe in Zimbabwe.