The liquidity crunch gripping Zimbabwe has paralysed the operations of Parliament, and both its houses have been forced to adjourn until January 29.
Broke and running on a shoestring budget, the state has withheld funding for the legislature, forcing both houses of Parliament – the lower house and the Senate – to adjourn until January 29.
This means the legislature will be unable to make a meaningful contribution to the 2014 national budget, which will be presented by Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa next Thursday.
Normally, Parliament holds pre-budget consultative meetings around the country in the run-up to the budget presentation and also makes an input to the finance ministry to ensure that as many views as possible are represented.
In addition, the budget is usually debated in Parliament soon after the presentation, but this will not be the case this year because Parliament has adjourned.
Legislators told the Mail & Guardian that there are no funds to sustain the debt-ridden Parliament's operations.
It is also saddled with unpaid hotel bills accrued from the previous session, amounting to more than $750 000. Legislators from the last Parliament are owed allowances ranging between $10 000 and $20 000 each, depending on the number of days each legislator attended to parliamentary business.
Adjournment comes at a crucial time
Thokozani Khuphe, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai parliamentary leader who is also a former deputy prime minister, said the adjournment of Parliament at such a critical time is unfortunate because it means the legislature will not be able to exercise its role.
"How can Parliament be effective when it's not meeting?" she asked. "Right now, we are supposed to be holding budget consultative meetings in preparation for the budget presentation, but that is not happening. Parliament should not have been adjourned at such a crucial time, even though it is clear they [the government] are broke and struggling to revive the economy."
Khuphe said as the leader of the opposition in Parliament, she had held meetings with the clerk of Parliament, Austin Zvoma, who admitted that Parliament had no money.
"As we speak, legislators have not been given any allowances since the session began. They have only been given fuel coupons twice, so things are bad. The government is also failing to pay hotels for accommodating MPs and this has led to the adjournment of Parliament. Some hotels are now reluctant to take in MPs because they have gone for a long time without being paid."
Zvoma this week said Parliament will be recalled for a special session next week for the budget presentation and that debates on the budget will only take place next year.
"At the time Parliament was adjourned, the budget was not ready for presentation and indications were that the minister would present the budget early next year. The date to which Parliament is adjourned is flexible and we can always change it," said Zvoma.
On pre-budget consultations, Zvoma said: "This year is different because there was little time for proper consultations by the budget committee. In the ensuing years we will ensure that there will be proper consultations."
He said it would be pointless to do budget consultations after the presentation, so Parliament's duty will be to analyse the budget when it is presented.
An official employed by Parliament, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if both houses sit, they need a combined $200 000 a week in sitting allowances and accommodation.
On average, he said, hotel accommodation costs between $100 and $110 a legislator a night.
Parliament books hotels for all legislators without accommodation in Harare, and those with accommodation receive an allowance.
The legislature has 355 members – 275 National Assembly members and 80 senators. Each parliamentarian gets $75 a sitting, and committee sittings attract the same payment.
Last year, legislators endured the embarrassment of being barred from checking into the Crowne Plaza Hotel and the Holiday Inn in Harare over nonpayment of accommodation bills.
A Zanu-PF legislator, who did not want to be named, said the eighth session of Parliament could be the worst parliamentary session in the history of Zimbabwe if ongoing challenges are not attended to.
"The situation is very sad. At this rate, this Parliament will not be able to achieve anything other than to rubber-stamp the executive's decisions. We are hardly getting time for debating issues and we are not sure if there is a solution in sight," he said.
"Parliamentarians are so demoralised that, by the time Parliament was adjourned, some of them were no longer coming. Some of the legislators live far away. Imagine travelling all the way from a place like Victoria Falls, which is about 900km away, using your own fuel, which is never reimbursed.
"In addition, we have not received any allowances to date, so only the rich ones can afford to attend regularly. It's a difficult time for legislators, especially those who thought they would make money from being in Parliament."
The first session of the eighth Parliament was opened in mid-September. After the opening ceremony, both houses reassembled briefly before adjourning for a week.
Desperate bid to contain expenditure
Parliament was also adjourned at the end of September to November 5 in a desperate bid to contain expenditure by reducing the number of sittings.
It was adjourned again from November 7 to 16, but the adjournment from last week to the end of January is the lengthiest to date.
The adjournment comes at a time when legislators from the previous Parliament are trying to find out about their outstanding allowances.
The legislators have formed an association, the Ex-Legislators' Forum, which is led by former MDC parliamentarian Ward Nezi. The forum is negotiating with Parliament over the payment, though some members want to take the matter to court.