Tsvangirai Pulls Out of Election

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Supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai participate in a campaign rally for the Movement for Democratic Change June 22, 2008 in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the same day Tsvangirai withdrew from the upcoming runoff election

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the country's general election on Sunday, saying the rising tide of violence and repression against his supporters by Robert Mugabe's regime made an uncompromised election impossible. At a news conference in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) said, "Conditions as of today do not permit the holding of a credible poll. We can't ask the people to cast their vote on June 27 when that vote will cost their lives. We will no longer participate in this violent sham of an election." Tsvangirai added that Mugabe had "declared war by saying the bullet has replaced the ballot."

Tsvangirai's decision means Mugabe will be unopposed in Friday's vote and effectively hands victory to the 84-year-old former guerrilla leader who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980. The Zimbabwean government confirmed Monday the vote would go ahead as planned.

Zimbabwe's security forces and pro-government militias have rampaged across the country since Mugabe lost control of parliament and came in second to Tsvangirai in the country's first round of voting on March 29. That result, argued Mugabe, was a "mistake." Punishment was severe: the M.D.C. claims 70 of its supporters have been killed, thousands beaten and 25,000 displaced. More than 200 supporters are missing. M.D.C. party leaders have also been arrested — Tsvangirai has been detained repeatedly — and his No. 2. Tendai Biti, has been charged with treason, which can be a capital offence. Journalists have also been detained and beaten, and foreign aid workers and diplomats harassed.

On Sunday, thousands of Mugabe supporters wielding clubs and pipes occupied a stadium in Harare where the M.D.C. was planning to hold its biggest rally of the campaign. Abandoning the rally and calling the press conference to announce he was pulling out, Tsvangirai appealed to the United Nations, African Union and the Southern African Development Community, a regional authority, to "intervene and stop the genocide." Intervention, though, is considered extremely unlikely.

Much of the world would undoubtedly like to see the end of Mugabe's regime; by allowing a program of white-to-black land redistribution, begun in 2000, to be run by pro-government mobs who took farms by force and handed them to regime leaders with few farming skills, Mugabe has presided over the ruin of his agriculture-based economy. Four out of every five Zimbabweans is unemployed, inflation runs at an absurd 165,000% and millions of Zimbabweans now depend on foreign food aid. Meanwhile, Mugabe and the generals who back him have become increasingly brazen about their contempt for democracy and the welfare of their own people. Several leading figures in the security forces vowed they would refuse to cede power to Tsvangirai even if he won an election.

But the two Western powers with most influence in Zimbabwe — the U.S. and Zimbabwe's former colonial power, Britain — are constrained from acting against Mugabe by the uncertain results of their own foreign policy interventions elsewhere, and by Mugabe's accusations that they are behind a plot to overthrow him and recolonize Zimbabwe. Despite increasing complaints about Mugabe's behavior from other African leaders, the most influential power in the region, South Africa and its President, Thabo Mbeki, has been ineffective in its efforts to temper Mugabe's excesses. Zimbabwe will now most likely be left to rot behind a wall of international sanctions that will bite its people far harder than its leaders. "Our victory is certain," said Tsvangirai on Sunday. "It can only be delayed." As the people of Burma or North Korea would tell him if they could, under a dictatorship, delays can last a lifetime.