Zim group demands new constitution

Without New Constitution, No Chance for Opposition

Zimbabwe’s main constitutional change pressure group has taken its campaign to a level, demanding that the next general election be held only under a new democratic constitution.

The National Constitutional Assembly, a grouping of civic groups, labour unions, churches and opposition parties, says to get into another election before changing the rules would be self-defeating.

“Zimbabweans would be foolish to go into another election without a new constitution,” says chairperson Lovemore Madhuku. “The current government is not accountable because there is nothing in the Constitution to make it accountable.”

Zimbabwe is in the grip of its worst political and economic crises, blamed on the country’s long-serving, all-powerful executive President Robert Mugabe with a limitless number of terms of office.

Last year Mugabe won his fifth election since independence under a cloud of controversy that he stole victory through intimidation, violence and mass disenfranchisement.

The opposition is contesting the outcome of this election in court.

But the problems go beyond one man. Zimbabwe has not had a popular constitution since gaining independence from Britain in 1980, following a protracted liberation struggle against the rebel Rhodesian government of Ian Smith.

The country has been operating on the ceasefire document signed at Lancaster House in London, Britain, in 1979 and subsequently amended 15 times.

Political analysts in Zimbabwe say a skewed electoral playing field has helped the ruling party dominate all elections held since 1980.

“You can have 100 elections under the current Constitution and they will all be stolen,” Madhuku says.

Elections in Zimbabwe are run by civil servants and verified by an ineffective Electoral Supervisory Commission appointed by the president, who also has the power to validate and invalidate elections.

Thus, in effect, the Constitution allows the president to be both referee and player.

One of the Constitution’s major weaknesses is that the presidential election and parliamentary elections do not have to be held simultaneously. The presidential term is six years while parliamentarians are elected for five years.

Furthermore, the gap between the two elections is growing. The last parliamentary election was held in 2000. The presidential election took place two years later.

The next parliamentary elections will be in March or April 2005 and the presidential election will be in 2008.

This two-year interval between the two elections will swell to five years by 2020, potentially making the country ungovernable.

Madhuku says to reject voting under the current Constitution is not akin to boycotting elections.

“We are saying let’s disturb the electoral process under the current Constitution. If an election is called, we will disrupt nomination through mass action.”

But the ultimate decision to participate will be left to the political parties themselves, he says.

Launched in January 1998, the National Constitutional Assembly spearheaded the successful campaign against a new ruling-party-drafted constitution in February 2000, giving Mugabe his first ever electoral defeat.

Twenty months after its formation, the National Constitutional Assembly gave rise to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has since become the country’s main opposition party.

Since then the two organisations have sometimes had an uneasy relationship.

“At the moment, the relationship with the MDC is fine, we are agreed on these principles,” Madhuku says. “But we don’t trust that they will be with us on this point.”

“Political parties are opportunistic,” he says. “When they see power they abandon principle.”

The second round of talks between the MDC and Zanu-PF aimed at halting the country’s decline has been on and off since March. Madhuku says if the MDC believes these talks will offer it a chance at power it is likely to forget about a new constitution.

Equally, he says if the MDC thinks the current constitution will lead it into power it will stick to it.

“They have some faith in the current Constitution since they have managed to win elections under it.”

Nine months after formation in 2000, the MDC won 57 of the contested 120 parliamentary seats. Since then the party has scored major victories in council elections.

However, MDC spokesperson Paul Themba Nyathi says “the only way forward for Zimbabwe is through constitutional reform”.

Nyathi adds that the decision to contest elections is made by the MDC’s national executive.

“We will cross that particular bridge when we get to it.”

Meanwhile, Zanu-PF spokesperson Nathan Shamuyarira says the 2005 elections will go ahead as scheduled and that the ruling party has no plans to adopt a new constitution.

He accuses the National Constitutional Assembly of indecisiveness.

“They were the ones who rejected the constitution we put on the table in 2000. They don’t seem to know what they want,” he alleges. — IPS

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