Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Controversial Election Bill Passed Unopposed

Campaigners are outraged at MDC’s decision to back a bill that clears the way for next year’s elections.
By Joseph Sithole
Civil society groups called it the “great betrayal”, while politicians on both sides of Zimbabwe’s political divide described it as an historic moment.

Rarely has a single political event in Zimbabwe so confounded expert opinion as the passage of the controversial Constitutional Amendment No. 18 Bill.

What was initially billed as the ultimate showdown between the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, would have been seen as an anticlimax were it not for the sighs of relief that finally something positive had come out of South African president Thabo Mbeki’s mediation efforts between the two sides.

Constitutional Amendment No. 18 sets out a framework for holding the combined presidential, parliamentary and local elections planned for next year, by cutting short the present legislature’s life by two years and reducing the president’s term in office from the current six years to five.

Once President Robert Mugabe gives his assent and the bill becomes law, it will expand the House of Assembly from 150 to 210 seats, and the upper house or Senate from 66 to 93, by redrawing constituency boundaries.

It seemed unthinkable that the larger of the MDC’s two factions, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, would agree to the proposal for an expanded Senate. After all, the reason the MDC split in October 2005 was a schism over Tsvangirai’s decision to boycott a Senate election.

The body had been abolished in 1987, but the government proposed to set it up again. Tsvangirai opposed the reinstatement of the Senate because he felt its members would not be elected in a free and fair ballot, as the same electoral rules were to apply as in previous polls which heavily favoured the ruling party and were open to rigging.

In the event, the new Senate included traditional chiefs, most of them ZANU-PF supporters, and several members directly appointed by President Robert Mugabe.

All 111 of the members present in the House of Assembly parliament voted in favour of the bill on September 20, agreeing that it was “in the national interest”. On September 25, the bill went through the Senate unopposed, backed by all 56 members present.

Outside, however, members of pressure groups aligned with the opposition expressed outrage that – in their view - the MDC had sold out on its demand for an all-new constitution before next year’s elections go ahead, rather than another piecemeal amendment to the document agreed at Lancaster House in London when Zimbabwe won independence in 1980.

Critics of the revision to constituency boundaries say it will allow Mugabe to do some gerrymandering - enhancing constituencies in his rural strongholds while reducing them in urban areas where the MDC has dominated since it was launched in 1999.

Another contentious provision states that if the incumbent president resigns or is for any reason unable to carry out his official duties, the two houses of parliament will sit as an electoral college and pick a candidate to complete the remaining portion of the incumbent’s term. Once again, critics say this will allow Mugabe to handpick a successor whose position will be fairly secure by the time of the next presidential ballot.

Lovemore Madhuku, the chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, said he was “disgusted” by the decision of the two MDC factions to make a deal with ZANU-PF.

“We are severing ties with the MDC over their going to bed with ZANU-PF,” said Madhuku, whose group advocates a new democratic constitution. He himself has been arrested several times over the past eight years for leading demonstrations in support of a new constitution.

Arnold Tsunga of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition could not conceal his anger at the latest political developments. “We think the MDC has sold out,” he said. “It will be difficult to work with them in future.”

Tsunga said it was wrong to believe that Zimbabwe’s eight-year political and economic crisis “could be resolved through constitutional amendments”.

The National Constitutional Assembly and the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition are part of a broad alliance of 23 pressure groups, student associations and labour organisations called the Save Zimbabwe Campaign, which was formed in 2006 to fight for a new constitution. The Save Zimbabwe Campaign also includes both factions of the MDC, one led by Tsvangirai and the other by Arthur Mutambara.

Analysts in Harare said while the demands made by these groups and their anger at the MDC’s decision to go along with the constitutional bill were understandable, they were nevertheless unrealistic, as it would be impossible to launch a process of consultation and drafting for a new constitution only six months ahead of watershed elections.

“This is a make-or-break election for the MDC,” said a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, who asked not to be named “They cannot afford to lose it again. They will become history.”

The analyst said while a new constitution would have been an ideal way of levelling the playing field, the MDC was losing valuable preparation time as the mediation process dragged on.

“They don’t have a lot of time to campaign and there are many odds stacked against them, but they did not want to be seen by both Mbeki and the whole SADC [Southern African Development Community] region to be negotiating in bad faith,” he said.

“They have made a huge sacrifice on their demand for a new constitution, but they should also be commended for putting the suffering of people ahead of personal ambition.”

The MDC said it had not abandoned the fight for a new constitution, but had supported Amendment No. 18 “because we do not want to see Zimbabwe burning”.

Welshman Ncube, the secretary-general of the MDC faction led by Mutambara, said, “Zimbabweans are faced with a national crisis. We may differ, but we agree there is a crisis.”

Tsvangirai told an independent newspaper that the decision he and his colleagues had taken was “a necessary political risk” and that history would vindicate them.

“I fully understand the history and duplicity of ZANU-PF,” he told the Standard. “This is not just a South African initiative but a SADC initiative. Both MDC and ZANU-PF recognise that.”

Zimbabwe is in the grip of a prolonged economic crisis which has seen year-on-year inflation reaching an all-time high of 7,600 per cent, unemployment of over 80 per cent and widespread shortages of most basic commodities. In the eight years since the precipitous decline began, life expectancy in Zimbabwe has plunged to 37 years for men and 34 for women.

Critics blame the country’s catastrophic decline on Mugabe’s decision in 2000 to seize white-owned commercial farms, ostensibly for distribution to the landless. in practice, some of the best farms went to his cronies. Mugabe, in turn, blames the crisis on the targeted western sanctions imposed on some 200 associates and members of his administration following his disputed re-election in 2002.

Escalating political tensions in 2007 culminated in the savage beating of opposition activists, including Tsvangirai, while in police custody in March this year. Weeks of violence against MDC members and other opposition activists forced SADC leaders to take action by asking President Mbeki to mediate a settlement between ZANU-PF and the MDC. That initiative resulted in last week’s historic agreement on the Constitutional Amendment Number 18 Bill.

A political analyst in the capital Harare said that however angry civil society groups were, the worst thing they could do now was to openly campaign against MDC candidates, or boycott the 2008 elections.

“Don’t forget that civil society activism has become a huge industry in Zimbabwe,” he said. “The political crisis has become a lucrative source of employment for many, and people don’t want to lose donor support.

“However, if they are committed to democracy they will still vote for the MDC because the negotiations haven’t ended. If they choose to stay out of the whole process and not vote, then that’s what I would call treachery, because that would indeed assure ZANU-PF of the easiest victory so far.”

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe.

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