Sunday, 24 March 2013

In Zimbabwe, a new political dispensation?

The Zimbabwean government announced in March a successful referendum of a new constitution for the struggling African country was achieved. The constitution appears to reflect serious changes to Zimbabwe’s current dictatorial political system. However, very little has changed to limit the all-encompassing presidential power of which Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is tenaciously determined to retain.

After years of negotiation between the two main rival Zimbabwean politicians - incumbent president Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai - a draft constitution is finally moving through Zimbabwe’s political system. The impact of the constitution will be largely centred on fixing Harare and the political mess stemming from decades of one-party rule of the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Perhaps most importantly for Zimbabwe’s perishing economy, artificial limits on presidential terms will come into effect following this year’s election.

Zimbabwe will go to the polls later this year in June in an attempt to enact at least some of the promised constitutional changes. A maximum of two five-year terms for a single president will make any more three-decade terms impossible.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his notorious reputation and long incumbency, current President Robert Mugabe is of course eligible for re-election this year. As was likely well thought out prior to the final draft, any limit on presidential terms as outlined in the new constitution does not work retroactively. In this way, it is entirely possible the infamous dictator could remain in Harare for another 10 years.

News of the fresh constitution on Zimbabwe media. - Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images
The bullying tactics Mr Mugabe used to initiate talks with his rival political parties around the recently passed constitution are a clear indication of the president’s lack of conviction and interest in any real political reform and democratic process with the potential to remove him from office before he is personally ready to step down.  

According to the new constitution, presidential rulings can only pass with majority consent in the cabinet. Considering the violence of the last election campaign in 2008, and a desire to avoid repeat outbreaks this year, presidential powers to declare a state of emergency will require the approval of at least two-thirds of lawmakers.

Although the trimmings of presidential power should lead to a culture of constitutionalism and not impunity, as Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai recently said, the changes do not do enough to limit Zimbabwe’s enormous presidential powers.

Already the President Robert Mugabe has been in control of the country since 1980 when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain. Another 10 years might not be available for Mr Mugabe. His 89 year old health is slowly deteriorating as end-of-life ailments make trips to East Asia for medical treatment increasingly frequent.  

Presently, Mr Mugabe lacks any clear successor to fill the probably imminent void should he either die in office or become incapacitated. In the way Zimbabwe’s president has set up his political regime, Mr Mugabe is the centre of a cult of personality. It is highly likely that in the event of the president’s removal from power, be that via election results or frailty, his party would probably fragment without a strongman leader.

However, until that point real political reforms will be neglected so long as the dictator stays in power. International pressure, especially from the European Union, in the form of sanctions and political observers has already gone some way in ensuring the ZANU-PF are working towards reform requirements. Whether these reform processes are paper thin and designed to entice the United States and the EU to repeal their sanctions, or whether Mr Mugabe is finally beginning to feel the negative effects of a broken Zimbabwe economy, will be borne out in the future.

For the rest of Zimbabwe, the contents of their new constitution include introducing an independent judicial system and enforcing land rights. These changes attempt to address the economic flatline of a once strong, export-oriented Zimbabwe economy. As an example, Mr Mugabe’s controversial land reform policies annexed farms owned by experienced white commercial farmers to the control of inexperienced black farmers. Such policies precipitated a drop in corn production to 833,000 tons in 2012, down from a high of 2 million tons at the beginning of the century.

Alongside this, Zimbabwe’s mining industry received similar treatment from ZANU-PF policies, especially in the platinum industry. The regime made it compulsory for any foreign company with assets over US$500,000 to sell a 51 percent share on to native Zimbabweans. As a result, foreign investment from western nations has the potential to lose traction, driving the economic problems further into the ground. However, the regime has made efforts in the past to encourage foreign investment, from China especially, so pushing their draconian policies too far is undesirable.

If the new constitution is to have a positive effect on the population of Zimbabwe the unity government of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) must pay it more than just lip-service. Already political tensions have eased somewhat since the two parties came begrudgingly together following the election turmoil of 2008.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (front R) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (L) - Reuters 

But international observers fear the promised constitutional changes will do little to disincline the ruling party from employing violence and fomenting discontent during elections later this year. While Mr Mugabe is unlikely to outlive a maximum of ten years if victorious, and the ZANU-PF is unlikely to cohere after Mr Mugabe leaves office, the ZANU-PF will do all they can to ensure the next term is a victory for their party. Violence and targeted killings are methods historically used to ensure victory for the ZANU-PF.

With close to 75 percent of working-age Zimbabweans unemployed, remaining in power following the demise of a charismatic Robert Mugabe will be a tough task for a leaderless ZANU-PF. Although inflation has stabilised somewhat following the unification of the two major political parties, with help from Chinese pockets, getting the economy back on track will be an enormous obstacle.

After the 2008 crisis in Zimbabwe, inflation rose to the phenomenal heights of 6.5 sextillion percent. In response, Harare simply created ever-larger denominations for their bills and printed more money to continue trading. The situation became so dire that Zimbabweans adopted the US dollar for official transactions and as a by-product slowly saw their economy recover somewhat. Zimbabwe still has over US$10 billion in foreign debt with little means of repaying anytime soon.

In February, Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister Tendai Biti claimed only a balance of US$217 remained in government accounts after paying employee salaries. As this extreme example shows, Zimbabwe’s economic woes are crucial for each rival party to repair as each appears to understand.

Depending on which party is victorious after the June elections this year, the Zimbabwe economy will be a top priority. If the MDC gains power a palpable shift in economic policy is expected. Mr Tsvangirai is already moving towards reversing the trend of state control over various industries and liberalising sectors, especially the mining industry.

On the other side, because of the necessity of keeping foreign companies interested in Zimbabwe, if the ruling ZANU-PF wins similar steps towards liberalisation might also occur, although their scope and speed will be questionable.

Ultimately, the constitution drafted in Zimbabwe will have little effect unless incumbent president Robert Mugabe is willing to admit defeat and leave office voluntarily. As this scenario is unlikely, the election violence will probably return in the lead up to voting in June. Mr Mugabe will go through the motions of cooperating with international pressure to reform to ensure continued control over the country.

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