Leading article: The people have spoken. Mr Mugabe must listen

The silence from the ruling party in Zimbabwe could mean one of two things. It might mean that a massive rigging operation is taking place at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to turn around what looks like a resounding electoral defeat for President Robert Mugabe – and make it look like he has just scraped past the 51 per cent of the vote needed to avoid a second round of voting, and give his party a majority in parliament. Or it might be that the ruling elite is engaged in a frantic process of negotiation over who will tell the ageing despot that the time has come when he really does have to step down. We can be hopeful it is the latter since the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has said privately that its leaders have put out feelers to the faction of Zanu-PF which is least sympathetic to its boss to try to arrange a peaceful transfer of power.

Mr Mugabe has fiddled the result in at least two previous elections, in 2002 and 2005. But things are different this time. On previous occasions the majority of the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was narrow and the vote-rigging required was possible to disguise or deny, at least to the extent that a good percentage of the electorate remained in a state of doubt. This time his defeat has been so thundering that vote-rigging would be seen to be blatant. The Mugabe regime can stay in power only with a heavy show of force from the army and police, whose chiefs were, as recently as Sunday evening, publicly declaring that they would not allow a victory by Mr Tsvangarai.

Opposition politicians have been canny this time in getting the results published in individual constituencies as soon as the counts were complete. It will be much harder for the Electoral Commission to cook the books in the final reckoning. The MDC has claimed, on the results declared in 128 of the country's 210 parliamentary districts, that Mr Tsvangirai has around 60 per cent of the votes, almost double what Mr Mugabe has mustered. Observers inside Zimbabwe say privately that almost 80 per cent of the result is known and that six Cabinet ministers, including several of Mr Mugabe's closest cronies, have lost their parliamentary seats.

Even Mugabe strongholds which in the past bought his rhetoric about the endless war of liberation, and his constant attacks on the British Government, have turned away from him. They clearly would have preferred it had he stepped aside last October when his Zanu-PF colleagues urged him to stand down while he was still the revered liberation hero and allow another of their gang to take over. Mr Mugabe gambled and he has lost.

The leader of neighbouring African countries must now make clear that the will of the Zimbabwean people must be upheld. The opposition must not be persuaded to go to the courts, a strategy they tried last time without success. Nor is there now a case of international mediation of the kind that Kofi Annan conducted in Kenya, where so many ballot boxes were destroyed that it was impossible to know the outcome of the poll. The vote in Zimbabwe has already been recorded locally.

The key may lie with the army chiefs whom Mr Mugabe consulted on Sunday night, fearful of their possible reaction to a defeat. They pledged their loyalty then. But now that the people have spoken so decisively they should change their minds and force the change that the voters require, if necessary initially through a government of national unity pending properly free elections. For one thing is clear, whatever happens in the days ahead, things can never go back to how they were a week ago. A turning point has been reached in Zimbabwe. And not before time.

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