The president of Zimbabwe, Mr. Robert Mugabe, is engaged in a cynical political ploy. The country’s 70,000 white farmers are the pawns in his bid to regain the political initiative in elections scheduled for next month. His tools are Zimbabwe’s war veterans, many of whom are poor — as a result of the economic mismanagement Mr. Mugabe has visited upon his country during his 20 years in power. By encouraging the veterans to seize the white farms, Mr. Mugabe hopes to bolster his sagging popularity; instead he threatens to visit further devastation on the economy and to isolate his country.

When Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980, the British government agreed to provide its former colony with $55 million in aid to assist land reform. About 67,000 people were resettled, but most went to marginal lands. In 1990, Britain froze the program, arguing that Zimbabwe had violated the terms of the deal by forcing farmers to sell their holdings. Worse, the purchased land was turned over to Mr. Mugabe’s cronies; about 40,000 hectares of land went to a little more than 400 people, all of whom were connected to ZANU-PF, the president’s ruling party. International donors were outraged, and cut off support for the program in retaliation.

Without assistance, the country spiraled downward. Mr. Mugabe is a committed socialist, and his economic policies have had predictable results. The farmers that have been resettled were not given title to the land, so they could not develop it. The cronies of Mr. Mugabe who received the farms in 1990 had no farming experience; most of the land is lying fallow. More than half the workforce is unemployed. Inflation is at 70 percent a year. Interest rates hover around 60 percent. Zimbabwe is wasting the little money it has supporting the war in Congo; reportedly, the government has intervened on behalf of embattled President Laurent Kabila in exchange for diamonds.

The people of Zimbabwe have had enough. In February, they rejected a constitutional amendment that would have permitted the government to seize farmland without compensation. Fearing defeat in parliamentary elections scheduled for next month, Mr. Mugabe played his last card: He encouraged the war veterans to seize the white-owned farms.

The result has been a steady descent into violence. Thousands of the president’s supporters took over nearly 1,000 farms. Although courts have ruled the seizures illegal, the police have not intervened. At least four people have died, and panic has spread among the remaining whites, many of whom have fled to the cities. Mr. Mugabe has fanned the flames by calling the white farmers “enemies of Zimbabwe” for backing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and opposing the plan to take their land without compensation.

The stage has been set for an eruption of even worse violence and lawlessness. That could lead to a complete economic meltdown, since Zimbabwe depends on the white-owned farms for much of its tobacco crop, which provides 40 percent of the country’s export earnings and 20 percent of GDP. There is also growing concern that the violence could spread across borders and inflame South Africa. To try to dampen the situation, Mr. Mugabe met with his counterparts from Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa on Friday. It is unlikely to have much impact: Mr. Mugabe is trying to force Britain to shore up his regime by resuming the aid program. If the violence gets worse, he has an excuse to postpone next month’s elections.

Zimbabwe needs land reform. Whites, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, own half of the arable land. But the president’s feeble efforts at land redistribution have not constituted real reform. Moreover, his focus on compensation is a red herring: Land purchases make up only one-quarter of the cost of relocating black farmers. The real expenses follow from the infrastructure developments — roads, water supply, seed, fertilizer — needed to make the farms viable.

The people of Zimbabwe have seen through Mr. Mugabe’s gambit. In opinion polls, fewer than one-third of them support the government’s program to seize the land. Instead, three-quarters blame the government for their economic miseries. Unfortunately, the war veterans are Mr. Mugabe’s last bastion of support, and he cannot afford to alienate them.

For Mr. Mugabe, political survival comes first: before the rule of law, before the fate of the people he claims to rule, and even before his country’s national interests. His gamble must not be allowed to succeed. Zimbabwe will need international support to survive this crisis, the worst since independence. It should be forthcoming, but with conditions. Mr. Mugabe must see that the elections take place, ensure that they are fair and promise to respect the results. The land seizures must end and the rule of law be restored. It is not too much to ask.

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