What is a free and fair election? Some observers of the balloting completed last week in Zimbabwe said it wasn’t nearly as violent and tumultuous as the 2008 vote, which forced President Robert Mugabe into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with rival Morgan Tsvangirai.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, head of an African Union mission, said the latest balloting was free and fair “from the campaigning point of view.” The Southern African Development Community, which had 562 observers, called the elections “free and peaceful,” but noted that it is too early to call them fair.

The elections certainly were not fair. Official results released Saturday gave Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since 1980, 61 percent of the vote, and Tsvangirai 33 percent, with 6 percent going to other parties. Tsvangirai called the vote “fraudulent and stolen” and demanded a new election be held.

There is good reason for his party to cry foul. Observers reported that far too many voters were given election day “assistance,” which may have swayed their choices. There was a mysterious surplus of ballots and allegations of votes being cast on behalf of deceased voters and active voters being omitted wholesale from the rolls.

It seems that Mugabe set out this time to win in a way that would not bring international criticism. Above all, the voting was kept relatively calm. The fix was put in behind closed doors.

Everyone who cares about democracy ought to be on the lookout for subtle methods of stealing an election. Both the United States and the United Kingdom properly criticized Mugabe for tilting the playing field. The ultimate goal of democracy is to build a vibrant civil society that connects the rulers and the ruled. It starts with respect at the ballot box.