VETERAN opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai apparently got the most votes in the first round of presidential balloting in Zimbabwe Saturday, a result that reaffirms the potency of the voting booth - even where bribery, intimidation, and flagrantly biased state-run media preclude fair elections. Whether President Robert Mugabe will actually go is a different question.
One simple reform made it clear that a majority rejected Mugabe after 28 years of his disastrous misrule: This weekend, each of the country's 9,000 polling stations posted its own tally. Opposition poll observers and the general public were able to see and add up the separate vote totals. So the Mugabe-controlled electoral commission could not receive all the unannounced local results, perform an unmonitored count, and proclaim that the 84-year-old despoiler of the nation had been reelected.
Mugabe and his cronies in the security apparatus could still refuse to abide by the voters' verdict. They control all the levers of power in the country, and have enriched themselves while the masses suffer from hyperinflation of more than 100,000 percent and an unemployment rate of 80 percent. The predators responsible for these calamities have reason to fear for their future should the former union leader Tsvangirai avoid a run-off and take office.
The African Union and democratic countries elsewhere should do everything possible to help foster a peaceful transition in Zimbabwe. If this means assuring Mugabe and his henchmen some kind of safe haven despite their crimes and misdeeds, the benefits to the impoverished populace in Zimbabwe could make such a cheating of justice worthwhile.
And if Mugabe does depart peaceably, Zimbabwe will need a great deal of economic aid that must be managed competently and honestly.