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This article participates on the following special index pages:

  • Constitutional Amendment 18 of 2007 - Index of articles, opinion and anaylsis

  • Constitutional deal opens up cracks in opposition
    Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
    Joseph Sithole (AR No. 136, 03-Oct-07)
    October 03, 2007

    Visit the special index of articles, analysis and opinion on Constitutional Amendment 18

    The once-cohesive ranks of the Zimbabwean opposition have been strained by a row in which the main political party, the Movement for Democratic Change, has been accused of cutting a deal with the authorities.

    Members of parliament from the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, shocked and angered opposition pressure groups by backing Constitutional Amendment No. 18 Bill, proposed by the Zimbabwean authorities.

    All 111 members present in the House of Assembly parliament voted in favour of the bill on September 20, agreeing that it was "in the national interest". On September 25, the bill went through the Senate unopposed, backed by all 56 members present.

    Although a senior figure in the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC has now apologised to civil society groups, analysts say the rift highlights the differences between hard-nosed politicians and the pro-democracy and rights activists who also claim a role in the political process.

    The bill sets out a framework for holding combined presidential, parliamentary and local elections next year, by cutting short the present legislature's life by two years and reducing the president's term in office from the current six years to five.

    Once President Robert Mugabe gives his assent and the bill becomes law, it will expand the House of Assembly from 150 to 210 seats, and the upper house or Senate from 66 to 93, by redrawing constituency boundaries. Critics say this will allow Mugabe to gerrymander constituencies, extending them in his rural strongholds while reducing them in urban areas where the MDC has more support.

    Another contentious provision states that if the incumbent president resigns or becomes unable to carry out his duties, the two houses of parliament form an electoral college to select a candidate to complete the remaining portion of the incumbent's term. Once again, critics say this will allow Mugabe to handpick a successor whose position will be fairly secure by the time of the next presidential ballot.

    Civil society leaders were furious with the MDC's role in the vote, accusing it of selling out to ZANU-PF - specifically by accepting constitutional amendments rather than holding out for the opposition's longstanding demand for a completely rewritten document.

    "We are severing ties with the MDC over their going to bed with ZANU-PF," said Lovemore Madhuku, the chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, NCA, a pressure group which advocates a new constitution.

    He said the root of Zimbabwe's problems was "bad and undemocratic governance" which could only be resolved by a new constitution.

    The NCA is a member of the broader Save Zimbabwe Campaign, which also includes the MDC's two factions.

    Until now, opposition groups and the MDC have presented a more or less united front, leaving something of a grey area between the political opposition and the broader constituency of advocacy and rights groups which share its anti-Mugabe, pro-democracy orientation.

    The Mugabe administration has often used the convergence of opposition interests to accuse aid groups and others of pursuing a political agenda.

    The parliamentary vote appeared to drive a wedge between the politicians and NGO activists, with the latter insisting on an all-new constitution, as well as demanding that they be given a separate role in the continuing negotiations mediated by South African president Thabo Mbeki on behalf of the Southern African Development Community, SADC.

    In its response to constitutional amendment vote, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition - another member of the Save Zimbabwe Campaign - described it as "a serious infringement of our principle that a new constitution must be derived from a people-driven process."

    It continued, "SADC mediation has not taken into account the input of the ordinary people of Zimbabwe as represented by civil society organisations, and therefore is flawed . . . . We therefore call upon SADC and in particular President Mbeki of South Africa to accept the principle that the future of Zimbabwe cannot be resolved by secret talks between MDC and ZANU-PF. In this respect we do not accept the exclusion of civil society and other political parties from the current SADC talks."

    In an interview for the privately-owned Financial Gazette, Madhuku adopted a similar line, suggesting that real constitutional change would only be achieved when "the process of constitution-making is taken away from politicians" and the ZANU-PF government was "forced by mass pressure to accept democratic reforms".

    A politics lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, who requested anonymity, said the NCA was being unrealistic about its role in the political process.

    "I don't want to say they are naïve, because I am also for a new constitution, given the option," he told IWPR. "But to be dogmatic about it in the face of widespread suffering in the country and no sign of a breakthrough, I think, is being unrealistic. There has never in the whole world been the idealistic constitution that is driven by all the people in the true sense of the word.

    The lecturer said that during the negotiations, the leader of the bigger MDC faction, Morgan Tsvangirai, had objected to the "elitist" exclusivity of the process, but had ultimately realised it was futile to try to involve everybody.

    "That perhaps also explains the cloak of secrecy around the negotiations imposed by the mediator. It probably explains too why civil society involvement has been restricted to a minimum after Mbeki said he did not want to negotiate through the media," he said.

    One of the MDC's chief negotiators, Welshman Ncube, was unperturbed by Madhuku's anger at the agreement, saying the party was prepared to differ with civil society groups because they occupied different domains.

    The problem with Zimbabwe's pressure groups, he said, was that they were beginning to see themselves as political players instead of playing an advocacy role.

    "You should not seek to conflate and subsume civil society as an extension of the MDC or the opposition," Ncube told SW Radio Africa.

    "The opposition is about politics. It is about competing for political office. Civil society is about advocacy, about specific certain issues which fall within the areas of those civil society organisations . . . . [It] ought to be independent, ought to have its own views and indeed, in a proper democracy, they should not always be agreeing with the opposition."

    He concluded, "Madhuku and the NCA will now have to decide whether they want to join mainstream politics or maintain their advocacy role. Madhuku should not confuse the role of political parties and that of civil society organisations."

    As the constitutional amendments, Ncube downplayed their significance as a "side agreement" designed to build confidence in the negotiating process.

    Some observers believe it was Mbeki who encouraged the MDC's to take the pragmatic step of supporting rather than fighting the constitutional bill.

    "It must have been evident to Mbeki that the MDC was not making headway with its current on-and-off skirmishes with the ruling party," said the politics lecturer in Harare, noting that SADC members were worried by the Zimbabwe crisis and wanted a solution "yesterday".

    Another analyst said politicians were by nature liable to grasp at compromises, in contrast to groups like the NCA which tended to "insist on issues of principle".

    He pointed out that even without the MDC's backing, ZANU-PF would have won the parliamentary vote easily. By cooperating, the opposition party managed at least to get one positive change made to the bill - the deletion of a clause allowing President Mugabe to appoint up to 30 members of parliament, who will now be directly elected instead.

    "Politicians know their own weaknesses, and sooner or later you must decide whether you get something or lose everything," he said.

    On October 1, the ZimOnline news site reported that at a weekend meeting in Bulawayo, civil society leaders and the MDC reached an accommodation after Elton Mangoma, treasurer in the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the MDC, apologised for the "blunder" of failing to consult civil society groups on the constitutional bill.

    Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of a journalist in Zimbabwe

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