After 33 years of political thuggery and economic decline under the rule of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabweans deserve a better government. Following a
referendum to approve a new constitution for the country, they may be taking tentative steps towards one. The vote, which happened on March 16th, was to decide whether the country should adopt a new constitution in the run-up to an election expected to happen in July. It was a key part of the power-sharing deal that followed the 2008 elections. After a spate of state-sponsored violence and intimidation which led to more than 500 people being killed, a unity government was formed by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Since then, the former has served as the country’s President and the latter as Prime Minister. A new constitution was seen as a necessary step forward to establishing political order and a more stable democracy in Zimbabwe. It was also seen by some as a ‘dry run’ for the country’s electoral commission and observers from the South African Development Community, both of whom will be playing a major role in the upcoming elections.
The proposed constitution itself contained several provisions to restrict the power of the President and guarantee civil rights to the population. Its provisions included the creation of two five-year term limits for the President and an end to the office’s power to veto legislation. It also included a Bill of Rights which guaranteed freedom of expression and a free media, as well as provisions for the establishment of a peace and reconciliation committee. It also had beneficial clauses designed to co-opt support from Zanu-PF. The most notable example of this was a provision that would make the seizure of land under Mugabe’s reform programme, which confiscated land from thousands of mostly white farmers through often violent means and handed it to Zanu-PF supporters, legally incontestable. Although this has been criticised in the past for being responsible for turning a breadbasket into an economic basket case through mismanagement, the reforms are now in effect permanent. In the run-up to the vote, both Zanu-PF and the MDC supported the new constitution. The result was a comprehensive ‘yes’, with nearly 95% of voters supporting the change in a vote that was declared peaceful and credible by EU and African observers. Turnout of 55% was higher than expected and the way is now paved for an election later on in the year.
This is not to say that the referendum was uncontested. Civil rights campaigners such as Lovemore Madhuku decried the influence of Mugabe and saw the document as a political stitch-up designed to cement his power. One element that drew particular ire was the non-retrospective nature of the term limits, which in effect mean Mugabe could be in charge for another ten years. Instances of violence and intimidation before and after the vote also drew attention. Unnervingly, not long after the referendum four MDC members and the human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa were arrested by police on dubious charges of shouting at and taking photos of officials while they were searching the house of one of the suspects. Although Mtetwa was released a few days ago, a hearing on the other four is expected on Tuesday. To many, including Human Rights Watch’s Tiseke Kasambala, this is further evidence of a police crackdown on dissent that has reportedly been going on since last December. It is unknown whether this will continue into the election campaigning and whether the new constitution will simply bolster the power of the country’s 89 year old despot, but campaigners have good reason to fear both.
In the medium term, it remains to be seen how far this new constitution will go to securing rights and a stronger political system in Zimbabwe. African politics is unfortunately rife with official constitutions that have strong safeguards on paper, but are undermined by powerful factions and actors in practice. It would not be surprising if Mugabe and his followers continue to use violence in the run-up to an election and it would not be unthinkable for him to hold on to power even if he lost, as happened after 2008. It is unlikely that a clique that has maintained power for so long will be willing to surrender it easily because of one document. However, the recent vote does point towards something better. The provisions Zimbabweans voted for show a real desire for a political system which guarantees their rights and dignity. If anything, it provides a glimpse of what a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe might look like if those such as Tsvangirai and the MDC continue to make the tough fight for greater freedom.