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Mugabe Faces Open Defiance in Parliament

Opposition members’ behaviour is direct challenge to a president who has never endured public humiliation of this kind.
By Mike Nyoni
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe had a baptism of fire at the opening of the new parliament this week when, for the first time in his 28-year rule, he was heckled by the assembled legislators.

In what analysts said was a groundbreaking challenge to Mugabe’s autocratic rule, members of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, told him to go. They sang and danced in defiance as Mugabe officially opened the new parliament in the capital Harare on August 26, after it convened the day before.

Mugabe’s address was attended by almost all of the 210 members of the lower chamber – all 99 from ZANU-PF, the ten who represent the smaller faction of the MDC headed by Arthur Mutambara, and most of the 100 legislators from the main MDC faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

It was sometimes hard to hear what the president was saying as MDC politicians shouted interjections during his address.

Clearly unnerved by the open challenge from the opposition, the president nevertheless continued with his prepared speech, striving to raise his voice above the crescendo of singing and shouting.

It was the first time since independence from Britain in 1980 that anyone has dared interrupt Mugabe during an official address to parliament. But it is also the first time that his ZANU-PF has had a minority in the House of Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament.

Mugabe was booed and heckled when he accused the opposition of using food aid from non-government organisations, NGOs, as a political weapon to unseat his government. It was a strange reversal of roles: the opposition has in the past accused ZANU-PF of withholding food distributed by the government to punish those believed to support the opposition.

He was barracked again when he blamed Zimbabwe’s current food and fuel shortages on his traditional enemies – Britain, the United States and their European Union allies, who have imposed sanctions that specifically target Mugabe and some 130 of his key associates.

Mugabe did not respond to the humiliation as opposition members. But unlike past occasions, he confined himself to his prepared remarks, with no off-the-cuff comments.

The opening of parliament followed the swearing-in of members of the House of Assembly and the Senate or upper chamber on August 25, five months after an election which gave the MDC a slim majority in the Assembly.

While the harmonised elections in March also gave MDC leader Tsvangirai a majority of votes in the presidential poll, it was not enough to avoid a runoff with Mugabe. However, Tsvangirai pulled out of the second presidential poll before election day on June 27, citing widespread violence against his supporters, which the opposition says left over 100 dead, 10,000 injured and more than 200,000 internally displaced.

In another landmark event week, MDC candidate Lovemore Moyo was elected as Speaker of the House of Assembly, receiving 108 votes against the 98 secured by his rival Paul Themba Nyathi, who was put up not by ZANU-PF but by the Mutambara faction of the MDC.

Although Nyathi received many ZANU-PF, the numbers suggested not all of them backed him. There were claims that some disgruntled ZANU-PF members opted for Moyo to punish Mugabe after they were left in the cold in non-constituency and provincial governorships.

Earlier in the day, MDC Senate and House of Assembly members sent Mugabe a petition saying they did not recognise his presidency. They said he should not have officially opened parliament, because the question of who should do so would only be resolved in the ongoing power-sharing talks between ZANU-PF and the two MDC formations.

Such a deal has proved increasingly elusive. Tsvangirai has refused to sign a “final” document on power-sharing, which states that as prime minister, he must “occasionally report to the president [Mugabe]” – a clear indication that he would be the junior partner in government.

Tsvangirai has said he wants to reflect on the implications of the document, and has insisted that the talks have not broken down.

The negotiations, being mediated by South African president Thabo Mbeki, assumed a sense of urgency following the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Mugabe and the two MDC leaders on July 21.

Under the memorandum, none of the signatories was supposed to convene parliament or form a government without the consent of the other parties.

However, at a summit last week of leaders of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, it was agreed that Mugabe could convene parliament.

The theatrical scenes witnessed in parliament during Mugabe’s speech on August 26 are “history being made in the fight for democracy in this country”, said a Harare journalist who asked not to be identified.

He said the heckling represented a turning-point in Zimbabwean politicians’ treatment of Mugabe.

“This is what we need, and it is the first time that Mugabe has been told to his face that people no longer want him, he said.

He suggested that it might make the president re-evaluate his relationship with the MDC when the power-sharing negotiations start up again.

“[The president] will have to think twice about his relationship with the MDC when the talks resume. At least now he knows they don’t fear him and are ready to confront him directly.”

Mike Nyoni is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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