Zimbabwe: Parliament to shape next year's election battleground

Proposals cover expanded legislature, changes to constituencies, and even the eventuality that President Mugabe might opt to retire.

By Benedict Unendoro in Harare (AR No. 124, 30-July-07)

The future of President Robert Mugabe is the underlying theme to two bills which will be debated in the Zimbabwean parliament during its current session, the last before elections are held in March next year.

A set of amendments contained in the two bills will define many of the rules for the presidential and parliamentary elections which are likely to be held simultaneously next March. It also makes provision for what would happen if Mugabe chose to stand down.

Opening parliament on July 24, President Mugabe said, "Your task as parliamentarians during this session is a mammoth one."

The most controversial bill on the agenda would amend the constitution to allow both houses of parliament to sit jointly as an electoral college to select a replacement should a sitting president resign, die, or be impeached or otherwise incapacitated. The replacement would serve until the end of the elected president's term in office.

The change would give Mugabe some breathing-space in the event that he decided to step down as head of state, since his immediate successor would be handpicked rather than a potentially troublesome figure who came to power through direct elections.

Some politicians - including those in the faction-riven ZANU-PF - see the change as opening up an exit route that Mugabe might conceivably use. Opposition politicians, however, say it is just a ruse to wrong-foot dissenters within ZANU-PF, and in reality the president is unlikely to retire swiftly once - as seems likely - he wins next year's polls.

Under the same 18th Amendment Bill, the number of seats in the lower house of parliament would rise from 120 to 210 while the number of senators in the upper chamber would go from 66 to 84.

Finally, the bill would establish a human rights commission for Zimbabwe.

The second bill due to be tabled would set out the management of the electoral process, from drawing constituency boundaries and registering voters to running the elections themselves. This law is not expected to change past practice where Mugabe loyalists have overseen the whole process.

"The two bills have inherent dangers lurking in them," said Absolom Choga, a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. "Mugabe wants to remain in power and is the ruling party's candidate in next year's presidential elections. So the bills will be tailored in such a way that this is fulfilled, prolonging the country's political and economic crisis."

Chogo sees the two bills as complementary. The electoral bill will ensure that the additional seats in both houses of parliament will go to the ruling ZANU-PF party, while constituency boundaries will be gerrymandered for partisan reasons. The additional seats are being created in those areas where Mugabe's support is solid, while the number of opposition-friendly constituencies is being reduced.

Chogo said he agreed with former information and publicity minister Jonathan Moyo, who wrote in the Zimbabwe Independent recently that in expanding the two houses of parliament, Mugabe was simply extending his own patronage system.

The MDC has already complained that the ongoing registration of voters is being done in a way that makes it impossible for its supporters to sign up, thereby skewing the elections before they are held.

"We have encountered a plethora of obstacles," said MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa last month. "People suspected of being sympathetic to the MDC are being denied the chance to register... this is a nationwide problem."

Chamisa said that in rural areas, chiefs and other traditional leaders, who were well known for their loyalty to Mugabe and ZANU-PF, had been given the job of screening and vetting people wishing to register, and they were blocking known opposition supporters.

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a non-government organisation which has pressed for an all-new democratic constitution, last week described the 18th Amendment Bill as "treacherous and contemptuous."

"Zimbabwe needs a constitution that entrenches human rights and freedoms, ensures a free and open society and an electoral system that gives citizens power to elect leaders who are responsive to their needs," he said.

Madhuku also suggested that the constitutional amendment would scupper the mediation effort led by South African President Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the Southern African Development Community to negotiate a political settlement between the Zimbabwean government and the opposition.

"The amendment goes against the spirit of dialogue. The basis for dialogue is to replace unilateral decision-making with consensus and the inclusion of the opposition," said Madhuku. "The amendment has its origin entirely in the ZANU PF politburo."

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai last week urged Mugabe to withdraw the bill as a sign he was serious about the Mbeki-led talks.

Moyo, who is now the only independent legislator in parliament after losing his government post after falling out with Mugabe, urged mediators not to ignore the 18th Amendment Bill, otherwise they risked "dropping, if not losing, the ball". That, he warned, "would most certainly result in embarrassing failure with catastrophic consequences".

At the same time, he said the bill could offer "the best opportunity for a meaningful compromise towards the much-needed transition from crisis to sustainable development under a democratic dispensation", provided ZANU-PF and the MDC could discuss the proposal in a mature way.

Moyo recommended that a workable version of the bill would stipulate an independent registrar to oversee voter lists; accountable and representative commissions to manage constituency demarcation and the elections themselves; freedom for anyone to conduct voter education; and access to media for all political parties and candidates well in advance of any vote.

The current session of parliament will also see discussions on a third contentious bill, which would effectively allow the government to nationalise foreign-owned companies by requiring that 51 per cent of the shares in any firm are owned by indigenous Zimbabweans.

When the government ordered retailers to slash their prices last month in a bid to curb inflation, Mugabe warned businesses that they could face nationalisation if they did not comply.

Analysts say that although Mugabe may see the bill as a way of bolster support in the business sector ahead of next year's elections, it would in reality lead to the flight of investors, doing further damage to the country's economy.

Benedict Unendoro is the pseudonym of a reporter in Harare.