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Opposition Strategy and Tactics
Parliamentary Research Fellow of the South African Institute of International
September 02, 2004
"What Mugabe can't
control he makes irrelevant", observed a leading Harare economist
recently. Perhaps this explains the claim that parliament is the most
democratic institution in Zimbabwe. With debate about popular strategies
and tactics for the 2005 parliamentary elections intensifying; the role,
effectiveness and relevance of the Parliament of Zimbabwe is under scrutiny.
Does parliament matter?
Opposition parties in Zimbabwe
operate under two debilitating handicaps: A tyrannical legislative and
security environment and a loaded constitution that raises the threshold
of victory to 76 out of 120 electoral seats, as 30 MPs are appointed by
the Executive. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has consequently
laid down a gauntlet of sorts by setting pre-conditions for participation
in next year's electoral process. It is yet unclear whether the
gauntlet is a velvet glove, or contains a fist of steel that will finally
force the constitutional and political reforms essential to peaceful change
and normalisation. What is certain is that President Mugabe and ZANU-PF
will not entertain the MDC's demands, to do so would be to commit
Challenged by questions of
whether parliament plays any role other than constitutionally legitimising
an increasingly repressive state, some opposition MPs point to the space
the institution still affords for open and free debate, for questions,
motions, protests, petitions and to hold the Executive to account. Indeed
since 1997 the Zimbabwe Parliament has undergone a series of progressive
reforms that have improved the functioning of the institution as well
as public engagement with it. These include the establishment of Parliamentary
Constituency Information Centres, a parliamentary outreach programme and
proposals to include governance as part of the school curriculum. Since
2000, parliamentary portfolio committee meetings have been open to the
public and the cynical practice of fast-tracking bills through parliament
without adequate public hearings, debate and committee review has been
curtailed in favour of a genuflection to greater public and legislative
Furthermore, fissures within
the ZANU-PF parliamentary caucus have occasionally emerged in debates
within the historic chamber. One notorious occasion saw the Speaker of
Parliament effectively 'whip' a ZANU-PF member, asking in
him to clarify on "which side" he was debating. In the quieter
recesses of the parliamentary tea room, ZANU-PF MPs have also expressed
their concerns over the immorality of repressive legislation and policies
conceived in the Presidency, Central Committee and Politburo of the ruling
Yet whilst Zimbabwean parliamentary
reforms are laudable, the emaciated Zimbabwean governance and civil rights
horse bolted the stable years ago. Little further legislation is required
by the state in its war against democracy. The Public Order and Security
Act (POSA) is a political gill net that ensnares all opposition indiscriminately.
The terms of POSA require that all 'political' meetings require
the prior written approval of the Zimbabwe Police, forcing opposition
and civil society organisations to comply and await the arbitrary adjudication
of the local police commander, or to hold meetings secretly, or publicly,
in defiance of the law. The absurdity of this legislation makes it a crime
for consumers to gather and protest high food prices. Worse is to come.
If passed in its current form, the Non-Governmental Organisation Bill
slated to be tabled in October will be launched as a legislative weapon
of mass destruction, laying waste to civil society activism in Zimbabwe.
The MDC has now tacitly acknowledged
that it cannot win the 2005 Parliamentary elections under current conditions.
More particularly, ZANU-PF has demonstrated that it does not engage in
electoral battles in which the outcome is not pre-ordained in its favour.
Furthermore, the MDC is painfully aware that wherever it contests an election,
or by-election, its members and supporters are treated de facto as enemies
of the state and subjected to harassment, intimidation, torture and occasionally
murder. The party is disinclined to turn Zimbabwean citizens into political
martyrs. And despite its substantial numeric presence in the Zimbabwean
parliament, the MDC has been unable to amend, still less block, the passage
of draconian legislation that constricts its own political oxygen supply.
This has led to the existential question being asked, is the MDC's
continued participation in parliament perversely legitimising statutory
repression? The choices it faces are stark: withdraw from parliament,
boycott the 2005 elections, adopt violent and non-violent struggle tactics
and perhaps establish a 'government in exile'. Should the
MDC withdraw from parliament and not contest the elections it will highlight
the illegitimacy of the elections and parliament, but such illegitimacy
is already well understood by Zimbabweans and many in the international,
if not regional, community. Before making any decision on withdrawing
from parliament and the forthcoming electoral process, the MDC needs to
demonstrate its own democratic credentials and take the debate to its
members and seek a fresh mandate for action. After all, in 2000 and 2002
the MDC received a substantial mandate, at great personal cost to many
of its millions of supporters, to oppose the ruling party and its President
in the formal political arena. The decision to participate or boycott
will have crucial consequences for the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe,
now and in the future and is thus one that ought not to be taken principally
by those earning a livelihood from parliament. The opposition would do
well to consider not only what its rank-and-file would prefer, but also
what its opponents would relish. Parliament still offers the opposition
in Zimbabwe a rare, protected and relatively democratic site of struggle.
It should be expanded, not abandoned.
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