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Zimbabwe is beginning a new era. Last week’s elections mark an end to the unchallenged rule of President Robert Mugabe. The president now must make a historic choice. He can either be remembered as the man who led his country into independence or he can aspire to be the man who did that and led his country into the future.

Last week’s elections mark the first electoral defeat for Mr. Mugabe. His ruling ZANU-PF party was handed a stunning rebuke at the polls by the Movement for Democratic Change. It was a setback and a humiliation for the man who has dominated his nation since it obtained independence from Britain 20 years ago. Mr. Mugabe and his party will keep their grip on power in Zimbabwe, but that hold has been loosened. Governance now will require working with the opposition.

The MDC, led by Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist, captured 57 seats in the 150-seat Parliament. The ruling party won 62. (The president appoints an additional 30 seats; a small opposition party has the remaining one.) This is a remarkable victory, since Zimbabwe has never had an opposition party of any significance, the MDC was formed only nine months ago and the campaign was marked by violence and intimidation by Mr. Mugabe’s backers that left more than 30 people dead — most of them MDC supporters. International monitors have refused to certify the elections as free and fair, and Mr. Tsvangirai is demanding a recount in some election districts. Yet with all these handicaps the MDC has shaken the foundations of Mr. Mugabe’s rule.

The MDC’s 57 seats deprives the government of the two-thirds majority it needs to amend the constitution. That is a blow to Mr. Mugabe. During his two decades in power, he has changed the document 16 times.

The last attempt to do that was a final gamble to win support before this election. After voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed the government to appropriate agricultural land held by white farmers without compensation, Mr. Mugabe changed the constitution himself. He then made “land for blacks” one of ZANU-PF’s campaign slogans and accused the opposition of being the “stooges” of the British.

It was a desperate strategy, and it failed. Zimbabweans recognize that their economy is in ruins, but the fault is not that of the British. Rather, Zimbabwe is in desperate straits as a result of 20 years of economic mismanagement and corruption. Playing the racial card and pandering to so-called veterans of the revolution was bound to fail.

Zimbabwe’s voters were rightly concerned about an unemployment rate that is approaching 60 percent, near-stagnation in industry and commerce, and inflation. The land-appropriation scheme has only worsened the situation. About 20 percent of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product and 40 percent of its export earnings come from agriculture. The farm seizures have already cut farm production. It is estimated that GDP will shrink by 5 percent this year.

Nonetheless, Mr. Mugabe has said that his government will continue with the program. He has even threatened to extend it to other industries. That has scared off foreign investors and deterred international lending institutions from providing much-needed assistance. In addition, there is the fear that other political leaders in the region might also take up the call to seize land.

Many people in Zimbabwe, and even many members of the ruling party, now believe that Mr. Mugabe has been discredited and should step down. There is little chance of that. The president led his country into independence and has shown little inclination to shy away from a fight. The next presidential election is two years away.

Zimbabwe’s problems require immediate attention, however. If Mr. Mugabe wants to be remembered as the true founding father of his country, he will try to rule with the opposition, rather than against it. Indeed, in his first comments after the vote, he sounded conciliatory. Unfortunately, he did not say that he would invite any MDC members into a national unity government. For that matter, the MDC has shown no willingness to join a Mugabe government.

That is the challenge for Zimbabwe. The country is in a desperate situation. If it is to surmount this crisis, all citizens must put their differences behind them and work together. Given the recent history, it will be difficult. The biggest challenge falls on the shoulders of Mr. Mugabe. He has led his country and has now divided it. His legacy should be the former. It is not too late to redeem himself.

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