Zimbabwe: the end game?
A week from today, the people of Zimbabwe will face an unusually stern test of their mettle. In the face of widespread violence and intimidation, will they have the courage to turn out to vote in the run-off presidential election?
Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, have already been forced to flee from their homes by supporters of President Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. They will not be allowed to vote because they are no longer in the electoral district where they are registered. Others have had their identity documents confiscated by armed men at road-blocks because they did not know the words of ZANU-PF chants. They, too, will be disenfranchised, because without documents, they can't vote.
So what about those who, despite everything, insist on turning out next Friday? Some of them, when they get to the polling station, will be "invited" to accept assistance from government agents. If they decline, they will be labelled as opposition supporters, and their homes, their families, even their lives, will be at risk.
You think I may be exaggerating? I wish I were. Just yesterday, Amnesty International reported the finding of 12 more bodies of murder victims. Most of them bore signs that they had been tortured to death. This is no longer a campaign of violence, said one senior Western diplomat in the region, this is terror, plain and simple.
But something is stirring among Zimbabwe's neighbours. After having watched for years in silence as the country slid into poverty and anarchy, Mr Mugabe's neighbours are at last speaking out. Over the past couple of days, as if with one voice, they have criticised the terror unleashed in Zimbabwe - and have warned that unless something changes pretty dramatically over the next few days, there is no way that the outcome of the election can be regarded as legitimate.
So here's an imaginary scenario for you: the elections go ahead, and substantial numbers of people turn out to vote. The opposition MDC promptly announce that their leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has won. ZANU-PF say rubbish and, after another lengthy delay, just like after the first round of elections, pronounce Robert Mugabe the winner.
What then? Will angry opposition supporters take to the streets, as they did in Kenya? Will government troops and security forces go on the offensive and crush any sign of dissent? Will President Mbeki of South Africa, who's meant to be mediating in the crisis on behalf of Zimbabwe's neighbours, urge that the elections be annulled and some form of unity government cobbled together instead? (Reports in the South African press suggest that he is already, in fact, proposing something along those lines.)
It is difficult to see any prospect of President Mugabe, after 28 years in power, agreeing to step down. Yet the same was said at various times of the Shah of Iran and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. Yet they did, eventually, bow to the inevitable - one died in exile in 1980, and the other was executed in 1989.
The MDC are insisting that they will offer Mr Mugabe a guarantee of his personal safety. He is, even now, a hero of his country's independence struggle, so he may avoid the fate of either the Shah or Ceausescu.
But he must know that with his neighbours now running out of patience (the Tanzanian foreign minister used those exact words in a BBC interview yesterday), his options are few. His neighbours fear a total breakdown of order across their borders - and it's beginning to look as if they've decided that the only way to avoid it is by easing President Mugabe into retirement.
It's going to be a tense few days, but we'll do everything we can to report and analyse the developments for you as they unfold.