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Published: Thursday, 7/3/2008

Sham and suffering

THE outcome of Zimbabwe's sham election last week was almost as bad as it could get in terms of impact on the people of that miserable country.

Robert Mugabe was re-elected to his sixth term as president, which could leave him in power until 2013. There is every reason to believe he will continue to rule Zimbabwe as a greedy, incompetent tyrant and that the state of both the economy and civil liberties will continue to decline.

The other southern African states - led, or not led, by South Africa, the region's powerhouse - have not covered themselves with glory either. Mr. Mugabe was inaugurated on Sunday, then flew to the Egyptian resort of Sharm-al-Sheikh, where the African Union held its annual summit. There appears to have been no thought among the Africans of disinviting Mr. Mugabe. Such an action could have been enforced by telling him that his plane would not be granted landing clearance in Egypt.

The means by which Mr. Mugabe engineered his unopposed re-election casts shame on any pretensions that African states may have in striving to democratize and develop the continent. His supporters, particularly the country's security forces, simply attacked and killed backers of the opposing party, the Movement for Democratic Change, until its leader and presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, withdrew from the election to avoid further carnage.

So what happens now? There is talk that Mr. Mugabe might be open to negotiations with Mr. Tsvangirai about coalition rule, which has recent precedent in Africa. Kenya emerged in April from the violent aftermath of its December presidential election with one candidate as president and the other as prime minister, which required a constitutional amendment.

It will be easier for other African presidents to urge Mr. Mugabe to talk with Mr. Tsvangirai, as opposed to urging him to hold free and fair elections, which he would almost certainly lose. Absent an armed movement that other countries could support to oust Mr. Mugabe, that approach may be all that can be done now.

The goal is for Zimbabwe to be run by a popular regime that will devote itself to reconstructing a country so devastated by misrule that one-quarter to one-third of the people are hungry and destitute. Waiting for Mr. Mugabe, 84, to die of old age is not good enough. Too many Zimbabweans will not outlive him.

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