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votes on new constitution
March 13, 2013
On Saturday Zimbabweans will go to the polls to approve
a new constitution that has been many years in the making, but
which some feel has not been worth the effort. The new constitution
will be the last major hurdle before the country can hold elections,
probably in late July.
That vote will once again
pit Robert Mugabe, now 89, and Morgan Tsvangirai against each other.
Mugabe shows no signs of having lost the taste for power, and Tsvangirai
has certainly shown that he appreciates its privileges. A splendid
mansion, shopping trips abroad, and amorous adventures seem evidence
of that. Even so, Tsvangirai is the only candidate who proposes
a new start, and the west has invested heavily in him. If he wins,
the country may indeed get its new start but if he loses the kind
of compromise coalition that South Africa's Thabo Mbeki negotiated
last time around may be impossible.
The new constitution
has no place for a prime minister – Tsvangirai's current position
– and the role of vice presidents is not suitable for powerful
or even influential personalities with demanding parties at their
The words of the UN secretary-general,
urging that last week's Kenyan elections should be "credible
and peaceful" have set a tone. No one is talking "free
and fair". If Zimbabwe's referendum on Saturday is credible
and peaceful, the UN, the Commonwealth, the southern African region
and many others will breathe a sigh of relief.
which is almost certain to be approved, is a curious document. In
some ways it resembles closely a draft that Mbeki's negotiators
put forward half a dozen years ago, the so-called Kariba draft,
as it was put to the Zimbabwean parties on a houseboat moored on
Lake Kariba. In others, it recognises some of the positive aspects
of the new Kenyan constitution and makes a faint-hearted but discernible
effort to enshrine citizen rights. The chief complaint, one made
consistently by civil society groups, is that the president retains
too much power.
Such power might well
be required by a victorious Tsvangirai to unite the country and
take it forwards, but the unspoken fear is that it will be a possible
licence for abuse by a triumphant Mugabe – who may be within
reach of a "credible and peaceful" victory which would
hardly be free and fair.
Having said that, the
powers of the president in the new constitution are not greater
than those granted in France. If the president dies in office, then
the right of the senior vice president to succeed and hold power
without election is just as it is in the United States.
But this is where the
constitution is a strange beast. It is clearly a document with last-minute
compromises embedded within it – including one that states
that if the president dies or stands down in the first 10 years
after its adoption, the succession would pass to a nominee of the
president's own party. This is seen as a safeguard for Mugabe's
Zanu-PF party but, even with this exceptional provision, it is not
likely Tsvangirai would be made senior vice president in a coalition
government dominated by Mugabe.
Behind the scenes, all
parties are talking about compromises, coalitions, immunities from
prosecution. The problem is that everyone wants to dominate any
coalition. And that's because no one is really certain who might
win. The most comprehensive polls, although with huge margins of
error, seem to favour Mugabe – even in a free and fair contest.
But that huge margin of error could work in many ways. Certainly
it could disguise a huge disillusionment within the electorate and
there may well be massive abstention or spoiling of ballots. With
this uncertainty about the margin of error, the fear is that Zanu-PF
will intimidate and rig again.
this weekend will attract a small vote. The weariness in the country
accepts that a compromise constitution is the best available. Whether
the electoral commission can conduct the referendum smoothly –
the country still has difficulty funding democratic exercises –
is the burning question. No one wants the March referendum to prefigure
a July election which is botched administratively rather than won
or lost peacefully, credibly, freely or fairly. In the meantime,
the Law Society
of Zimbabwe is right to say that there is something to celebrate
in the constitution. It provides an expansive Bill of Rights with
citizen capacities to enforce those rights in law. Gender rights
are very visible. Powers are clearly separated to protect the courts.
Such a constitution, with a government that observed it in good
faith, would be workable and a massive improvement. But the question
in today's Zimbabwe is precisely to do with good faith.
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