Western governments took a strong stand against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2008 when he employed massive violence and fraud to perpetuate himself in power through a presidential election. Five years later, the 89-year-old strongman is at it again. Flouting agreements with the opposition and pledges to foreign mediators, he has scheduled an election for this month without allowing the reforms necessary to make it free and fair. Opposition leaders once again are being hunted and persecuted.
This time, however, the United States and European Union seem to be giving Mr. Mugabe the benefit of the doubt. Many of the sanctions imposed on the country were lifted after a referendum on a new constitution in March. EU officials have promised the rest will be removed if the election, which began with early voting this week and concludes July 31, is judged free and fair by African observers. During his recent tour of Africa, President Obama declared that "there is an opportunity to move forward" in Zimbabwe "if there is an election that is free and fair and peaceful."
As was already clear when Mr. Obama made that statement on June 30, Zimbabwe's vote will meet none of those tests. Amnesty International reported that military and police forces have carried out an "alarming clampdown" on the opposition, including "systematic raids and arbitrary arrests" of activists. In a similar report, Human Rights Watch said soldiers had deployed around the country to beat and harass supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. "The chances of having free, fair and credible elections," it said, "are slim."
As part of accords brokered by the South African Development Community, Zimbabwe was to have implemented reforms of the security forces and media and cleaned up its electoral register before any election. Mr. Mugabe called the vote before any of this was done. The heads of the army and police are longtime regime loyalists who refused even to meet with Mr. Tsvangirai. State television has been broadcasting Mr. Mugabe's campaign events while demanding that his opponent pay $165,000 for coverage of his opening rally. A study of the voter rolls by Zimbabwean groups showed massive distortions: An unrealistic 99.97 per cent of the rural population was reported to have registered, compared with only 68 per cent in the cities, where the opposition is stronger. A million younger voters who became eligible since 2008 have been left off the rolls.
None of this should surprise any observer of Zimbabwe, where Mr. Mugabe, in office since 1980, has never hesitated to use force, ballot-rigging or appeals to racism and xenophobia to remain in power.
Though his health is reportedly weakening, leaders of his ruling party are preparing to perpetuate the regime after his death, including through changes to the just-approved constitution. The question is whether their manoeuvring will be tolerated by the SADC, which is led by South Africa, and by western governments. With their own monitors banned by Mr. Mugabe, EU officials say they will depend on the regional group's judgment of whether the elections are fair. That won't be a hard call to make; the question is whether Zimbabwe's neighbours and the West will have the fortitude to tell the truth about the election,and to act accordingly.