Mugabe prepares for next move

Zanu-PF leader Robert Mugabe has been pegged back in a week of setbacks, but is preparing to reverse his opponents’ gains in Parliament by hunkering down and going it alone, even if this leaves Zimbabwe at a constitutional dead-end.

The opposition MDC expected to soften Mugabe’s resolve after the party gained control of Parliament this week, but he has declared he will go ahead and form a new Cabinet.

His opponents, emboldened after seizing the key post of speaker in Parliament, now plan to use the legislature to “box him in”.

Last week Mugabe appeared to gain the upper hand in power battles with his main rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, by winning tacit SADC backing and calling Parliament in an attempt to pressurise the MDC to sign a deal critics say leaves much of his powers intact.

But the opposition has taken control of the fourth most-powerful post in government and Mugabe is on the back foot. Rather than be forced back to the negotiation table, Mugabe intends to ride out his opponent’s resurgence and continue his rule using the executive powers at his disposal.

With Parliament falling to the MDC, two centres of power have now emerged, each devising plans to cripple the other.

MDC officials say they will starve Mugabe’s government by voting down budgets. Parliament will “put a wall in front of him, box him in until he bends”, an MDC MP said.

“Until we have a restoration of legitimacy, we will continue to have this crisis,” said Innocent Gonese, the MDC chief whip.

But there is little else the MDC can do. Even combined, the opposition remains short of the two-thirds majority required to impeach Mugabe. He can veto any legislation proposed by the opposition-dominated Lower House and his Zanu-PF party still retains control of the Upper House. Mugabe can also exert his executive powers and rule by decree.

“We are at a constitutional dead-end. Neither side can put one over the other,” said a constitutional expert who did not want to be named.

Mugabe still insists talks with the MDC will succeed, saying “landmark agreements have been concluded, with every expectation that everyone will sign up”. South African President Thabo Mbeki was expected go to Harare this week in the hope of getting both sides to talk again.

But the MDC has drawn first blood in the power struggle and believes it has Mugabe cornered. The hardening of positions on both sides was apparent as Mugabe was heckled in Parliament and police briefly arrested five MDC MPs.

Mugabe declared: “The MDC does not want to come in, apparently. They have been promised by the British that sanctions would be more devastating, that our government will collapse in six months’ time.”

His previous Cabinet had been “the worst in history”, he conceded, and he identified replacements. He would leave some seats open for the MDC, he said. But Tsvangirai now believes he is in a better position to press for much more.

Political analyst Alex Hove said Monday’s vote, in which the smaller faction of the MDC unexpectedly ditched its own speaker candidate to back the candidate of the larger MDC faction, indicates there will be a lot of “wheeling and dealing” in the new Parliament. Mugabe, he said, will need all his bargaining powers to survive. “The executive will have to show its persuasive powers now,” Hove said.

The effectiveness of the MDC’s plans to undermine Mugabe’s rule from Parliament will depend on how Lovemore Moyo, the new speaker, steers debate in the key legislative Lower House.

Moyo told the Mail & Guardian after his election the legislature would no longer be a rubber stamp for the president. He said he would seek to direct debate in Parliament over the enactment of “progressive legislation”.

“This is a new era for our Parliament. The executive has to negotiate with the legislature to push through its programmes,” he said. “No longer must we be expected to act as a rubber stamp for the executive.”

But Moyo faces the difficult task of taking up a powerful political post in a government still led by Mugabe, whose legitimacy the MDC disputes. Although Moyo says Mugabe only “claims” to be head of state, he insists he will be impartial in his work. “A polarised Parliament is in the past.”

On Tuesday MDC MPs handed Mugabe a petition, calling him “the illegitimate usurper of the people’s will”.

A penchant for colonial pomp
They love their bling colonial style, the people in charge in Harare.

They laid it all out this week at the opening of Parliament. The judges strutted along in flowing robes and white, woollen wigs that hang to the shoulders. The traditional leaders proudly plodded along in their ankle-length red robes, gold chains around their necks and those “white-adventurer-in-darkest-Africa” hats.

Then came Robert Mugabe himself, Africa’s last defender against marauding Western imperialists—in a black open-top Rolls Royce used by Load Soames, the last British governor of pre-independence Zimbabwe. The car has been pimped out, with white leather seats and silver rims.

Mugabe was guarded by dozens of horsemen in bright red vests with polished gold buttons. They wielded gleaming lances with little fluttering red feathers at the base, as swords with gold-plated handles dangled from shining saddles.

Inside, hundreds of MPs crammed into the small chamber of the Lower House of Parliament—an exact replica of the British House of Commons, with leather seats, a huge table and helpers in white gloves, black tuxedos and tails sauntering about like butlers. And, to use Mugabe’s description of his hostile reception in Parliament, he might have been in some English pub.

Movement for Democratic Change MPs heckled and sang dirty songs; one repeatedly shouted “murderer”. Mugabe was visibly annoyed, but as is the hallmark of his rule, he simply pretended the problem wasn’t there. He plodded on for 30 minutes.

At a dinner later, Mugabe was back on form. He’d been told, he said laughing, that the “barbaric” MDC legislators had spent the previous night in some cheap bar.

This is the first time Mugabe has been jeered inside Parliament. But it is not the first time he has faced hostility in public—the halo has been slipping for years.

In 2000, arriving for a Parliamentary ceremony after a narrow election victory won through fraud and violence, Mugabe faced loud taunts from an adjacent public square, the nastiest of which cast aspersions on the paternity of his children.

On Monday Tsvangirai’s MDC had not expected to carry the vote. But, when MPs from the Arthur Mutambara faction filed past Tsvangirai’s chief whip, Innocent Gonese, appearing to show him their ballots, it was clear something was up.

As the result was read out announcing the MDC’s Lovemore Moyo’s appointment as speaker, one side roared. The other sat in cold silence. Emmerson Mnangagwa walked over to Deputy President Joyce Mujuru. The two huddled in discussion, like tail-ender batsmen plotting to delay the inevitable.

Mnangagwa was clearly reluctant to stand and give his party’s congratulations, as parliamentary decorum demands of the losing side. He stood up only after repeated cajoling and gesturing by Mujuru.

“You can crow all you like,” a Zanu-PF MP defiantly declared. “Tomorrow, Mugabe will still be your president.”

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