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  • Constitutional reform basis for mediation, say activists
    IRIN News
    April 05, 2007

    HARARE - Civil society groups in Zimbabwe have revived calls for constitutional reform as South African President Thabo Mbeki begins mediation between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition to help resolve the country's political and economic crisis.

    Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a pressure group advocating constitutional reform, said, "Even though we don't expect Mbeki to dictate terms, it should be realised that constitutional reform is paramount in any dialogue that might take place and as a mediator he should stress that."

    Zimbabwe's constitution vests considerable power in the office of the president. A raft of amendments and tough new laws have slashed away at basic freedoms such as the right to association and expression, undermining democracy, rights group charge.

    Last week, following a violent crackdown by the government on protestors, the Southern African Development Community called on Mbeki to negotiate a political settlement. This week, Mbeki met with opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) officials Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube.

    The need for constitutional reform was an MDC condition for dialogue when Mbeki last tried to mediate the political impasse in 2002. The MDC had refused to acknowledge the 2002 presidential elections, which Mugabe won, as free and fair. But Mbeki's efforts to negotiate an agreement failed.

    Last year, Mbeki told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that his 'quiet diplomacy' towards Zimbabwe had almost resulted in a deal in 2004.

    "They were actually involved in negotiating a new constitution for Zimbabwe, and they ... completed it ... they gave me a copy initialled by everybody ... so we thought the next step then must be to say, 'where do we take this process?'. But then ... new problems arose among themselves," Mbeki said.

    Nelson Chamisa, spokesman of the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the MDC, said a new constitution should be put to a referendum before presidential and parliamentary elections are held next year.

    "We are optimistic that a solution will be found soon, even if that might take as long as 12 months. We need to be thorough and honest because what should be considered foremost are the burdened citizens," Chamisa told IRIN.

    Mbeki has set up a five-member team to help speed up dialogue ahead of the polls. "In reality we don't have much time, because normally those elections in Zimbabwe take place in March. So that means that ... Zimbabweans probably have 11 months to do everything that is necessary to ensure that these elections are free and fair and that the outcome ... is not contested by anybody," he announced this week.

    Madhuku suggested Mbeki should consult beyond political parties and involve civil society and other organisations representing the interests of Zimbabweans.

    David Chimhini, president of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust, a voter education rights group, urged Mbeki to be neutral and not be influenced by claims from ZANU-PF that the MDC was a front for western interests. "He [Mbeki] has described past elections in Zimbabwe as free and fair, but he should also look at the pre-requisites for free elections."

    Chimhini urged Mbeki to abandon 'quiet diplomacy' in dealing with Zimbabwe "but rather show a bit of his knuckle" to hasten the negotiating process.

    There is a sense of optimism that "this time round" Mbeki might make some headway as Mugabe is "an extremely beleaguered man," remarked political analyst John Makumbe. "Discontent is simmering because standards of living have fallen to their worst as prices rise on a daily basis, while critics of the current government have become more committed to regime change. The international community is also tightening the screws."

    Facing the world's highest annual inflation rate of more than 1,700 percent, many frustrated Zimbabweans have taken to the streets in the past three months. The protests have recently given way to bombings of police stations, a passenger train and a supermarket, among other targets across the country.

    Makumbe said in addition to the economic meltdown and political tension, Mugabe was facing dissent from within ZANU-PF.

    "There are new dynamics with ZANU-PF itself as some of its members are anxious for change. While in 2002 Mugabe did not face open criticism from his lieutenants, there are powerful figures from within the party that represent a thinking different from his and are becoming increasingly impatient with the his hard stance against the opposition and the West," he said.

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