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MDC Faces Election Dilemma

If the Zimbabwean opposition wants a presidential election next year, it must forego a new constitution.
By Takesure Moyo
Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, faces a huge dilemma in the months ahead - whether to argue for a presidential election in 2010, thus allowing time for the possible introduction of new and more democratic constitution, or press for a presidential election next year, as scheduled, under the present less liberal constitution.



This month, the deeply divided MDC launched a campaign of resistance to Robert Mugabe's plan to extend his presidential term beyond 2010 under the slogan “Say No to the 2010 presidential extension. Say No to elections under the current constitution. Say No to Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF".



But the MDC has clearly stretched its luck and demonstrated once more its apparent talent for incompetence and an ability to confuse and confound voters who are looking desperately for an alternative to Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party.



“If the MDC wants a presidential election next year it must forego a new constitution,” said a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. “On the other hand, if they want a new constitution they must be prepared to forego a presidential election next year. They can’t have it both ways. It's Catch-22. There is no way a constitutional consultation process can begin now and be completed in time for a presidential election in March 2008, as currently scheduled."



When a proposal was made last December at the annual conference of ZANU PF to extend President Mugabe’s term of office by two years to 2010, it had the support of eight of the party’s ten provinces. The party, divided between bitter rivals over the right to succeed the 83-year-old leader, shelved the issue and referred it back to the provinces for further debate.



The advantage of delaying the 2008 presidential election to 2010 is that it could be synchronised with parliamentary elections, argued Mugabe supporters. At present, presidential and parliamentary elections are out of sync, requiring Zimbabweans to go to the polls every two years. Such harmonisation would also reduce costs, suggested the pro-Mugabe lobbyists.



Moving the presidential vote to 2010 would require a constitutional amendment or a national referendum.



Both ventures would be risky for the president, given the parlous state of the economy and a growing consensus that Mugabe is responsible for its collapse. Despite ZANU PF’s majority in parliament, there are fears that some ZANU PF parliamentary deputies would vote against an extension of Mugabe’s term. A referendum would be costly and a favourable outcome for Mugabe could not be guaranteed.



The MDC is hoping that it can influence a sizeable number of ZANU PF deputies to resist Mugabe’s plan. They may find allies of convenience inside the ZANU PF faction led by vice-president Joice Mujuru’s husband, General Solomon Mujuru, former head of the Zimbabwe army and chief of Mugabe's exiled guerrilla forces under the warname Rex Nhongo during the 1970s war of liberation.



The Mujurus and their supporters, suspicious that Mugabe is seeking to extend his powers indefinitely, are asking why choose 2010 to hold the elections simultaneously and not 2008?



If the MDC campaign succeeds, and the Mujuru faction inside ZANU PF gives its support, then Mugabe will have to face a presidential challenge in March next year when, according to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe's inflation rate will have soared to more than 4,000 per cent, by far the highest in the world.



“But what are the MDC leaders going to do if Mugabe calls their bluff and says 'OK, let’s have the presidential election next year before a new constitution is in place?'" asked the political scientist.



The MDC and its partners in civil society and the National Constitutional Assembly, a non-party organisation that has been arguing for constitutional reform for the past ten years, have together been campaigning for a new constitution since February 2000. The political scientist said they could not compromise on that demand now without losing credibility.



He asked whether, if Mugabe conceded that the presidential election should proceed in early 2008, the MDC would then tell its supports to boycott the poll because there had been no constitutional reform.



The MDC had created an absurd dilemma for itself, he said. The party split last year over whether to contest elections to new largely ceremonial upper house Senate. History could repeat itself next year over a 2008 presidential election.



The MDC has rejected the outcome of all presidential and parliamentary elections since 2000, alleging widespread fraud and ballot rigging. The party and the National Constitutional Assembly argue that the current constitution gives the president too much power to manipulate the electoral process. The president chooses the chairman of the electoral commission that supervises elections and vets international observers.



The current electoral commission chairman is Tobaiwa Mudede, a hardline Mugabe loyalist and fellow Zezuru clansman, who has been accused of rigging all presidential and parliamentary elections since 2000. The MDC complained about Mudede's voters’ roll which the party said had deliberately been made "shambolic" to accommodate “ghost voters”.



However, a senior party official recently warned the MDC leadership that the party was in danger of losing future elections less because of electoral fraud than the fact that its grassroots support was withering away and it had never properly contested rural areas.



MDC chairman Isaac Matongo told a party rally in a working class suburb of Harare that members should stop complaining about ballot rigging and get into the rural areas where ZANU PF retains support through tradition, fear and patronage, which includes control of the distribution of desperately needed food aid.



“We should teach our relatives in rural areas to go and vote without fear,” said Matongo. " That is the only way we can win." He added that all ZANU PF's rigging manoeuvres would fail if the MDC could persuade each rural person who would like to support it to overcome their fear of Mugabe's party and its militias and go out to vote.



Takesure Moyo is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.