Coltart summing up mediation talks

Is Govt, Opposition Finally Agreeing?

The Citizen (Dar es Salaam)

16 November 2007

The recent passage of Constitutional Amendment 18 through the Zimbabwean Parliament with the consent of both Zanu PF and the opposition MDC has caused much alarm and confusion within Zimbabwean civil society and MDC supporters within Zimbabwe and abroad.

While some say that the opposition has sold out, others think that it has made a serious error of judgment and compromised both principle and political advantage.

This arises from a perception that Amendment 18 only helps Zanu PF and that there is no benefit for those struggling to bring democracy to Zimbabwe. The press has enhanced this view by reporting that Amendment 18 allows Robert Mugabe to handpick his successor.

Whilst we in the opposition did ourselves and our colleagues in civil society a disservice by hastily passing the amendment and failing to explain our actions sufficiently to our colleagues, I do not think our consent per se was a mistake. No doubt, the process used to pass the amendment was flawed.

But had we consulted widely and argued our case with our civic partners, they would have agreed that we should consent. History will show that it was the right thing to pass the amendment.Firstly, the amendments do not introduce any worse provisions than any that already sully our Constitution. They do not make the Zimbabwe Constitutional order any worse than would have been the case had the original draft of Amendment 18 tabled by Zanu PF been passed.

That document would have, for example, allowed further gerrymandering of the delimitation process (the original amendment proposed the existing 20 per cent maximum variation between constituencies to be increased to 25 per cent – which would have allowed Zanu PF to create even more rural constituencies and further dilute the urban vote).

Secondly, the final Amendment 18 has introduced several improvements to our Constitutional order. For example, aside from a token 5 senatorial seats, the President no longer has the power to appoint members of the legislature.

All 210 Members of Parliament will be directly elected by the Zimbabwean electorate as will the vast majority of Senators. This is a welcome break from the provisions in place since 1987 which have allowed the President to handpick 20 per cent of Parliamentarians.

Concern has been expressed about the alleged power now given to the President to handpick a successor. In fact, Amendment 18 grants no such power. Prior to the amendment, if the President died, resigned or was impeached, a Presidential election would have to be held within 90 days of the termination of his or her office.

Amendment 18 now states that Parliament will elect a successor pending the next scheduled election. This is better in some respects to the relevant US provision which allows the US Vice President to assume office for the balance of the original term.

Accordingly, the new Zimbabwean provision is a logical and fair provision designed to ensure that elections are held at predictable times and that all parties will have some say in the election of a temporary Head of State.

Perhaps, it is mainly feared the amendment will allow Zanu PF to wriggle out of the hole it has dug for itself.
There is deep concern that Zanu PF, through the Mbeki mediation, will agree to a variety of legislative changes without materially changing the political environment.

In other words, people fear that we may in the next few months witness a much fairer legislative environment being agreed to without genuinely free and fair electoral conditions being created.

We may see, for example, our media legislation amended which in theory will allow independent papers to operate freely, but which in practise will not be implemented early enough to enable independent papers to have a material effect on the electoral process.

In the short term these are valid concerns. There is a real danger that the Mbeki mediation process will result in a form of a free and fair electoral environment being created without any substance.

We may see the implementation of a new democratic constitution without a democratic environment being created prior to the 2008 elections.

It will take time for constitutional and legislative amendments to take root and change the way we conduct our politics in Zimbabwe as well as liberate Zimbabwean minds.

Many are worried that by agreeing to Constitutional Amendment 18 the opposition has helped Zanu PF create a mere façade of democracy. Time will tell whether this is the case. Much depends on whether the Mbeki mediation results in an acceptable period being agreed to between the promulgation of a new Constitution (and other laws) and the holding of Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

There is no doubt that if an election is held too soon after the passage of these new laws it cannot not be free and fair. Moreover Zanu PF, in the event of it winning, would be able to claim legitimacy having been elected in a theoretically free and fair environment.

In that event, the agreement to Amendment 18, and for that matter any agreement regarding the rest of any new legislative changes arising out of the Mbeki mediation, will be seen in the short term to have merely bought time for an oppressive regime.

Let me assume for the moment that this is what does in fact happen over the next few months; that the opposition is forced to agree to an unacceptably short period between the passage of new legislation and the holding of elections and that results in a Zanu PF victory which is endorsed by SADC at least as legitimate. Will that automatically mean that Amendment 18, and indeed our participation in the Mbeki mediation process as a whole, was a terrible mistake?

In conclusion, the opposition has in my view been correct in participating in the Mbeki mediation and in agreeing, as part of that process, to Constitutional Amendment 18.

Whilst that may not in itself yield any change in government in the short term, it has introduced the Gorbachev Factor to our political climate and that will ultimately be the catalyst for far reaching political and economic changes in Zimbabwe. We have in essence now unleashed a process that no-one will be able to stop.

Coltart is a Member of Parliament Bulawayo South, Zimbabwe

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