ZIMBABWE IS at a familiar tipping point. There is growing evidence that a presidential and parliamentary election held Saturday was won by the opposition -- mandating, at long last, the retirement of 84-year-old President Robert Mugabe. But there's been a suspicious and prolonged delay in the announcement of the voting results: By late yesterday the official election commission had reported tallies from only 66 of 210 parliamentary districts, and none from the presidential election. It seems pretty clear that Mr. Mugabe, whose misrule has all but destroyed Zimbabwe during the past decade, hopes to steal the election and enforce his decision with the police and army.
Yet history suggests that this is a moment when the combination of popular pressure and international intervention could spell the end of an autocracy. From the Philippines in 1986 to Ukraine in 2004, dictators have been undone when they held elections, lost, then tried to fix the results. Mr. Mugabe need look no farther than Kenya for an example of what could happen if he tries to proclaim himself the winner of the presidential vote; a similar maneuver by incumbent President Mwai Kibaki there in December led to violent upheaval and forced him to accept a power-sharing agreement.
In Zimbabwe, the need for change is far more urgent. Mr. Mugabe has turned what was once an African breadbasket into a starving land where store shelves are empty, the annual inflation rate has reached 100,000 percent and millions of refugees have fled to neighboring countries. Once widely admired for leading the struggle against minority white rule, Mr. Mugabe has resorted to systematic thuggery to preserve his 28-year-old hold on power. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sharply but correctly said Sunday, his "regime is a disgrace to the people of Zimbabwe, and a disgrace to southern Africa and to the continent of Africa as a whole."
Whether Mr. Mugabe succeeds in imposing a fraudulent election result will depend on whether other governments in southern Africa accept Ms. Rice's judgment -- and resolve, at last, to do something about the situation. For years, South African President Thabo Mbeki and other leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have tolerated Mr. Mugabe's crimes; at most they have gently nudged him to stop repressing his opposition and accept modest reforms. (One of those changes may prove the dictator's undoing; thanks to a law mandating that polling stations publicly post their results, the opposition has collected tallies from more than half the districts that show Mr. Mugabe losing to challenger Morgan Tsvangirai by a margin of more than two to one.) If SADC members insist that Mr. Mugabe release and accept the known results, and if they tell him that he will be isolated if he uses force against peaceful opposition protests, they probably can nudge their neighbor into a historic and desperately needed change. If they tolerate another fraud and another entrenchment by Mr. Mugabe, the disgrace will be theirs.