According to the BBC, the leader of the leading opposition party in Zimbabwe has pulled out of the forthcoming runoff election against Robert Mugabe, the incumbent who came in second in the opening round, because he's convinced that Mugabe will rig the election and dissidents will endanger themselves by voting. As the website states, this effectively concedes victory to Mugabe. This decision makes Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change, eligible for Idiot of the Week honors.
Perhaps my American perspective makes it difficult for me to understand why dissident movements in other countries so often boycott elections. If you believe that the party in power will rig things in their favor, you might as well let them do it so you can point to the evidence instead of standing aside looking like a paranoid. If you fear for the safety of your supporters, shouldn't you let them decide whether or not to take the risk? Worse yet, once you've let safety become the paramount consideration, you've opted out of any effort to change the government. Dissidents like Tsvangirai seem to think that their abstention from elections delegitimizes them. I fear the contrary is the case. By withdrawing from the runoff and not calling for revolution or at least civil disobedience, the MDC has really capitulated to Mugabe, the man whose rule they consider intolerable. In effect, they've decided to sit on their hands and hope for the international community to deal with Mugabe. Tsvangirai, in fact, has called for intervention. In response, the international community ought to sit on their hands.
If the strongest dissident movement in a country determines that the election on which it stakes everything will not play out fairly, there would seem to be no choice left but revolution. If there won't be revolution, then the dissidents may as well bow before the party in power since their complaints against the leader have been proven pointless by their refusal to do anything meaningful about them. This is the point where people in the international community will say that Zimbabwean dissidents have been terrorized into submission, and some of those people may very well use that as a justification for foreign intervention. But shouldn't they simply dismiss the dissidents as cowards instead?
Imagine if, in the year 2000, the Democratic Party in the U.S. refused to campaign in the general election on the assumption that a vote close enough to be contested would be decided against them by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. You may suggest cynically that things wouldn't be much different, but the fact that the election was contested, and that the Court did decide it in what appears to have been a biased manner, has probably emboldened some people to speak out more consistently against George W. Bush, and especially against the Iraq War, than they might have done otherwise. If the Democrats had just given up and allowed Bush to win in a landslide, more Americans might well have been cowed by the appearance of a legitimate democratic verdict and kept silent through an administration that seemed to have a popular mandate. It just makes sense to let the enemy prove your point instead of assuming that your suspicions alone are proof enough. As things stand now in Zimbabwe, I pity the common people there, but my sympathy for the dissident leaders will dwindle fast unless they find fresh ways to express their dissidence.