Leading article: An outside chance worth taking

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The declaration of the presidential election result in Zimbabwe, when it finally came last Friday, was rather eclipsed by the cascade of Labour local election defeats here in Britain. And the opposition Movement for Democratic Change is quite right to ask how far the belated result corresponds to the actual vote. Party officials were convinced at the end of voting, more than five weeks ago, that their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had won the more than 50 per cent required to avoid a run-off. The declared result, following resort to the courts, international pressure and a recount, is that he won just short of 48 per cent, against Robert Mugabe's 43 per cent.

But these figures present the MDC with a conundrum. If they reject them out of hand as a travesty – as they must be inclined to do – and decide to boycott a run-off, they leave the field clear for Mr Mugabe to cruise into a new term as president. If, as has been mooted, they field a lesser candidate, the result will be the same. The party will betray all the hopes of those who had the courage to vote for Mr Tsvangirai on 29 March.

Yet if the MDC swallows its pride and agrees to contest the run-off, it will lend legitimacy to a process that is, at very least, deeply compromised. Not only this, but it risks consenting to an election which it cannot win. The beatings of opposition activists and the vandalism against MDC offices that have been reported since the election show that Mr Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party will stop at nothing to ensure their victory.

The MDC met yesterday, but failed to reach any decision about contesting a run-off. The party's procrastination is understandable: it is damned if it refuses to take part, and damned – in a different way – if it does. That Mr Tsvangirai is no longer persisting in his blanket rejection of a run-off, however, may be a sign that he is coming around to the idea of participating.

This is the outcome we would favour. The court-ordered recounts were not the whitewash for Mr Mugabe that they might have been. If, as it appears, the presidency will now be decided by a second round, Mr Tsvangirai should take the risk, but not without a guarantee that there will be international supervision. The MDC should insist that all those with an interest in Zimbabwe's future – which includes its neighbours, the African Union and the Commonwealth – should join forces to ensure that the run-off is as free and fair as possible. An election worth the name has to be an election where the Opposition has a chance.

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