A flash in the pan? The Zimbabwean referendum and the road ahead

In Zimbabwe, a constitutional referendum will be held on Saturday which will end a process that started almost five years ago. As of now, the draft constitution is said to be constraining presidential powers, setting a maximum of two terms for the presidency, and strengthening political freedom. But what else is to be expected this year? With the current tense political situation around the polls this Saturday and the intra-party quarrels, the referendum and the likely to be-accepted new constitution are only the first steps in Zimbabwe’s democratization endeavor. The real litmus test is still to come: the presidential elections.

Political tensions after the last elections

Back in 2008, both the incumbent president Robert Mugabe and his most successful contender Morgan Tsvangirai both fell short of an absolute majority and a run-off election was needed. However, Tsvangirai declined to further participate in the process, claiming he had in fact won the  majority of the vote. This lead to a tense political situation: brutal repression, and political violence as you might well remember the pictures and stories in the news at the time. Tsvangirai left the country, only to return shortly after. But the political violence and intimidation against him continued, so again he left the country. Mugabe won the run-off election with a colossal turnout (~85%), in the midst of much turmoil. Mediated by South Africa’s president Mbeki and other regional leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Mugabe invited the MDC to participate in the government. In this power-sharing arrangement, the MDC took the prime minister position and control over the police, while Mugabe remained president and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriot Front (ZANU-PF), commanded the military. Part of the deal included tentative democratization efforts and changes in the Zimbabwean constitution.


A new constitutional draft and the current situation

The draft is a painfully achieved compromise which might explain why the referendum has now been postponed several times. Nevertheless, high level party officials are aware of this serious situation, as Tendai Biti (MDC) states:

This election offers a decisive chance after 2008 to set it right.  If we don’t set it right, when we had the crisis in 2008, a lot of people actually gave us a second chance.  But my suspicion is that if we get it wrong this time around, I think there will be a massive dislocation, a massive movement of people from Zimbabwe.  And also, the international community, which is already tired of Zimbabwe, I think they’ll just pack their bags. (Voice of America)

The major political parties support the draft in order to overcome this stagnation and chances are high that it will be accepted, although many voters still remain indecisive. Despite the lack of funding for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the ZEC was able to conduct training of polling officers and send out election material to the election offices. Regional organizations have deployed election observers (from SADC, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) well as the African Union member states). Yet, domestic political tensions are rising. NGOs and other civil society organizations face police-led crackdowns, are banned from election monitoring missions, and still try their best to get back into the game. Worst of all, politically motivated violence is increasing and critical voices are shut out of state-led radio stations. Likewise, Zimbabwean officials hinder US and EU officials as well as foreign journalists from entering the country. Foreign Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi (ZANU-PF) has given an absurd statement on this matter:

I do not see why they [European and US-American observers] need to be invited when they have never invited us to monitor theirs, it is not fair so they are not coming to Zimbabwe. (The Herald, text in brackets added)

(Don’t get me wrong on this. I’m perfectly fine with regional organization-led election monitoring. Just don’t babble about friends, foes, objectivity and “they didn’t invite us either”..)

What’s ahead? An outlook on the months to come

Presidential elections are expected this summer. Even if the implementation of the new constitution and the adjustments to current legislation will take longer, the Zimbabwean parties hope for presidential and general elections as soon as possible. These will almost certainly end the current coalition government. All involved will be more than happy to end this brittle marriage, a “multi-headed monster” (Mugabe), since it has not emerged out of love for each other in the first place.

With possible elections ahead, both the ZANU-PF and MDC parties are trying to gain a foothold on the presidency. The number of attacks against the political enemy is increasing as is the tension in Zimbabwe. Yet, both the standing of the presidential contenders – most likely Mugabe and Tsvangirai – and intra-party quarrels potentially influence the political situation. Robert Mugabe, 89, has been leading this country for more than 25 years. The new constitution would grant him another 10 years of office since the newly introduced limit of two presidential terms will not be retroactive. No one really believes that he will still be ruling the country at the age of 99 (but he might surprise us all), and political followers are positioning themselves within the party many of whom have been waiting quite long for their chance to take charge. Yet, Mugabe is a political animal, if not a monster, withstanding the political upheavals five years ago despite all he inflicted on the population. He also counts on European and US-American insincerities when it comes to dropping the sanctions after the new constitution has been accepted. Mugabe is likely to rail against Western interventions in domestic affairs in order to mobilize his conservative proponents. The recent economic relaxation is playing into his hands as well. And it is already working: the support for Mugabe is increasing again. Morgan Tsvangirai, on the other hand, will have to cope with disappointed voters. Some may still feel betrayed that he had agreed to work together with the person who caused so much trouble for the population. Also, Tsvangirai still needs to cope with a personal controversy about his marriage last year. This might result in less voter support. Finally, some intra-party opponents doubt his leadership and struggle for more power, while others want to secure their comfortable positions. Tsvangirai himself might be questioning whether this is an advantageous starting position for what is to come this year.

It remains open what is to be expected during the electoral campaigning as tensions are already boiling up in this rather comfortable time of mutual agreement. Much depends on the intra-party developments in the short run, the successful implementation of the constitution and the adherence to democratic rules of the game (which also means allowing civil society organizations do their work). Zimbabwe may become a success case of SADC-induced and SADC-accompanied democratic change but political leaders will have to take this chance.

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