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Those newsphiles who follow what is happening in our continent will know that the MDC has withdrawn from the Friday  Zimbabwe elections. It was no doubt a tough decision, as victory is now assuredly handed to Robert Mugabe and his bloodthirsty militias – with no clear indication that negotiations to find a power sharing agreement will succeed. I believe, however, that Morgan Tsvangirai has made the right (although wrenchingly painful) decision. I say this for a few reasons:

Firstly, there was little hope of winning the poll – ZANU PF has seen to that. Between the organised purges of MDC-sympathisers that swept the country, to the near total removal of MDC messaging from state media, there was never going to be a fair election. To compound matters, the long delay that the government was able ot cause in the first round results means that it would not be difficult for them to rig a final result even if the results of nationwide browbeating did not produce the verdict they desired.

In that climate, participating in an election amounts to little more than rubber stamping a Mugabe victory. And in such a context, where losing is nigh-guaranteed no matter what, it would be better to lose outright by refusing to participate, than hand a mock victory to Mr Mugabe and his party – something they could dangle in front of the world to make them acquiesce to further Mugabe rule. Make no mistake, the civilised democracies of the world will never accept the result of a ZANU-PF win, whether the MDC participates or not – but there is a real concern that far too many of the more spineless, hero-sycophantic african community would love even a superficial reason to call the election a demonstration of democracy in action, accept the result, and move on to less inconvenient matters. The decision then, to quit the elections, is actually the only way to keep international pressure on Mr Mugabe up, and deprive many African leaders of an easy route to endorse and walk away from the process.  Whether that international pressure will result in anything meaningful (a power-sharing agreement is only mildly less hilarious in its unbelievability than an MDC poll win), remains to be seen. But it would definitely be no worse than the outcome of a rigged poll conferred with semi legitimacy and a result left to hobble along for another presidential term.

Finally, even if the MDC were to compete in the election and, in a wild stretch of reality, actually win. it should be clear to even the most casual observer that they would never be allowed to rule. The  military/police complex has already indicated that they would never accept an MDC presidency and would go to all lengths to undermine the MDC if they won the election. This is not just politics speaking. While Mugabe himself might be able to hold out for a negotiated amnesty and asylum for his crimes, many of his underlings will be afforded no such mercies and will be held to account for the crimes they have perpetuated against their fellow Zimbabweans. Their very survival, therefore, depends on the indefinite perpetuation of a ZANU-sympathetic government and they have everything to lose if the MDC assumes executive control. Painted in that light, then, an MDC victory would amount to nothing more than the catalyst for a civil war – something which would benefit nobody, and which would be the sad answer to the perennial question of “how much worse could it get?”.

So, ultimately, I think that Tsvangirai has done the right thing. It would have been a painful decision to take, no doubt, but in the longer perspective of the struggle to save Zimbabwe, it was the right one. As tempting as it may be to believe that they are so close to attaining freedom via the ballow box, this is an illusion. That hurdle will never be crossed by the MDC this time around, and the prize on the other side is civil war, not freedom. The only option that is open is to force the rest of the world to keep up their condemnation and try to drag the dictator-in-chief to a negotiated solution. That remains a complicated and long term strategy, with no clear assurance of victory – but it is also the only one which really still contains hope.