Upset in Zimbabwe

Referendum: Vote drubs the autocratic president, who never expects to lose.

February 19, 2000

MOST Zimbabweans did not bother to vote on a proposed constitution that would strengthen the powers of the autocratic President Robert Mugabe. More than half of those who did rejected it.

The vote was billed as advisory, but the strong man of the past 20 years said he would abide by the will of the people. Even a clause to redistribute good farmland away from the whites who have owned it since the country was a colony called Rhodesia did not persuade the rural electorate to turn out. Dissidents organized urban people to vote no.

And so one of Africa's strong men, who came to power democratically in the independence election of 1980, is rebuked democratically.

That must hearten the opposition before the April election for parliament, where Mr. Mugabe's allies now hold all but three of 150 seats. The 75-year-old president's six-year term expires in 2002.

The referendum proved to be an unexpected small gain for democracy in Africa, not decisive even in Zimbabwe. It highlights the inflation, unemployment and favoritism that make the regime fail in the eyes of its people.

The International Monetary Fund quit lending because Mr. Mugabe keeps his army engaged in Congo's civil war. Commercial farms owned by a handful of white Zimbabweans, while inequitable, are the part of the economy that brings in foreign exchange.

Zimbabwe needs a new constituton, but one that would spread power, not concentrate it further. What Mr. Mugabe should do now is bring his army home, address the 60-percent inflation and craft an economic rescue package with international lenders.

That was the message sent by the election.

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