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Zimbabwe's election: a battle for democracy and a test for Africa

If Tsvangirai wins despite Mugabe's heavy-handed tactics, it'll be a historic victory.

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

Amid such threatening talk – and reports of intensified violence – 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 stable and prosperous economies.

But in the past 10 years, its economy has shrunk in half and hyperinflation tops 1 million percent. 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 Mr. 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.

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