There is no room for middling outcomes—Saturday’s elections in Zimbabwe will either be historic or painfully routine. Clinging to the tatters of a liberation mandate claimed in Zimbabwe’s 1980 independence movement, Robert Mugabe is seeking a sixth term as head of a now-failed state. One challenger, Simba Makoni, is an exile from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, whose experience as finance minister will—he hopes—reverse his opponent’s prideful neglect of the national economy (“million-dollar hamburger" and all). The other, Morgan Tsvangirai, is running on a solidly populist platform that also promises relief from the embarrassing poverty that has gripped the nation for a decade.
Both insurgents offer change we may believe in. But at 84, Mugabe epitomizes the respect-your-elders culture that has continually undermined democratic institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. He is feared in the manner reserved only for the reckless sadist: in 2000, he had thousands of whites
were beaten and expelled from their lands; years later, a Harare slum-razing sent additional millions into homelessness and exile; state advisers and experts—kept close by cash and threats—are said to have no say in government. And shamelessly, “old man” Mugabe still pulls rank on the trail. Just this month he endowed his loyal police force with the power to enter polling stations on Saturday, bearing arms. Of an opposition victory, he said, "It will never happen as long as we are still alive—those [of us] who planned the liberation struggle."
Emblematically, Mugabe is not even the longest-serving despot on the continent; Togolese president-for-life Gnassingb