With Mugabe beaten at the polls, the real Zimbabwe election is underway even now. Time reports that Mugabe is apparently trying to negotiate a dignified exit, or figure out a plausible way to steal the election. Everything depends on the military and police: boiled down, will the troops shoot, or won't they ?
If Mugabe steals it, it will probably be through the mechanism of some type of runoff. This way, he can say that he has allowed the process to proceed, but that the opposition just fell a little short. But this is a bad option for him -- it's taken too long, and it's too obvious he's lost. Trouble is, he has no good, safe options. If he steps down, he opens himself to legal proceedings and prosecutions; if he fights and steals the election, he might lose everything, and wind up strung up (as he deserves) outside his palace.
Even if the dictator wins, he loses. When the Maximum Leader has to blatantly steal elections after the votes are cast, and so obviously make a mockery of the process (instead of successfully manipulating it from the get-go) -- the dictator has already lost. The dictator is forced to depend too much on brute force, and he becomes his servants' captive: favored with their loyalty only so long as he can buy it. They may get a better offer by lunchtime.
But, for Mugabe, are there really alternatives ? One of the downsides to the modern mania for "truth commissions" (as in Chile and South Africa) and the growth of international human rights law is that it is harder for countries like Zimbabwe to get rid of their dictators. Why should the Boss, no matter how despised he may be, voluntarily give up power ? There's no percentage in being reasonable if the reward is not an ignored but comfortable retirement to write memoirs, gamble and drink someplace; but lawyers, harassment, prison and humiliation for the rest of your days. One wonders if Augusto Pinochet would have chosen to honor the election results that unseated him as President of Chile had he accurately foreseen his future as a plaything of crusading judges and the international left's favorite hate object ?
Maybe the modern trend to prosecute former Mr. Bigs gives the loved-ones of dead victims of the dictators some feeling that justice has at last been done. However, as a practical political matter, it makes it harder for the still living to get rid of their dictator. If prosecution's the result of stepping down, why not go down fighting ?
In the present case, the prospects of peaceful change are possibly aided by Mugabe's status as something of a former left-wing icon. He can probably expect more respectful treatment by the lawyers and media than somebody like Pinochet. The cases are indeed different: Pinochet left behind a prosperous country much richer than when he shot his way into power. Mugabe's Zimbabwe has 100,000 percent inflation. But Mugabe's a Marxist revolutionary (although to his credit, he did end minority rule in Rhodesia, only to bless his country with one man, one vote, once). By contrast, Pinochet was an Army general who revolted against another (incompetent) left-wing icon. In the real world, that's a big, big difference, and maybe the only reason there is any prospect of Mugabe's being induced to put down the gun and leave quietly.
UPDATE: The Daily Telegraph reports this evening that parts of the military leadership are negotiating with the Movement for Democratic Change (opposition) candidate, Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai (winner in Saturday's balloting). The parties are discussing the terms under which the dictator would agree to leave. Mugabe is looking, the piece says, for a dignified exit and immunity from prosecution. God grant that it be true. If it is, the participation of the military leadership tells me the jig is up. Naturally, Mr. Tsvangirai denies that any such conversations are taking place.