Constitutionalism or electoralism?

HARARE - In recent articles, Tendai Biti, the secretary-general of the MDC, made incisive analyses of the constitutional imbroglio that has characterised the political discourse for the past few years.

Biti observed that constitutions had failed “to curb the excess of predatory and imperial presidents such as Mugabe, Nguema and others.”

With respect to Zanu PF, he concluded; “Respect of the rule of law and order and constitutions is not in its DNA. The constitutions, laws and systems are acts of inconvenience.”

Why then would the MDC participate in constitutional reform given this damning verdict on constitutionalism in Africa as a whole and Zimbabwe in particular?

Perhaps the MDC’s participation can be explained in two ways. Firstly, the MDC is agitating for reform so that, in the event that President Mugabe wins the next election, he would face stricter constitutional restraints.

On this premise, arguments that the MDC version of the constitution is tailor-made to rein in Mugabe may not be entirely far-fetched.

Secondly, the MDC would perhaps want to portray itself as the selfless party that will represents a radical departure from the culture of disrespect of the supreme law of the land if it assumes power.

But a Mugabe victory casts a dark shadow on the ongoing constitutional reform. The MDC is pushing for a constitution that dilutes executive powers.

In some ways, it is recognition that Mugabe may indeed win the election, but his powers would have been clipped.

However, given Biti’s observations about Zanu PF’s attitude towards constitutionalism, the finest democratic constitution would, therefore, be still be inefficacious if Mugabe wins, rendering the current constitutional reform exercise a process in futility.

The second assumption is premised on the prospects of a Morgan Tsvangirai victory. It is, of course, remarkable that the MDC would accept to rule with diminished executive powers in the constitution it is pushing for.

Considering the MDC’s aspiration to rule, the question then is which should take priority — constitutionalism or electoralism? By electoralism, I refer, rather simplistically, to the process of elections.

While constitutionalism is crucial, democratic transition in Zimbabwe should be focusing more on electoralism.

Constitutionalism and electoralism are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Constitutions often guarantee freedom of political choice and articulate acceptable electoral practice.

The question here is on priorities at this juncture in Zimbabwe’s transitional politics.

In my opinion, democratic forces should prioritise removing Zanu PF from power, bearing in mind that it was never the constitution that led to the stolen election of 2008 anyway. It was a result of suspicious electoral management.

Therefore, greater focus should be placed on electoral mechanisms and matters.

However, the MDC appears to have been sucked into the drawn-out saga on constitutional reform.

Electoralism would, instead, entail increased fixation on effective electoral administration that will ensure the electoral
authoritarianism of four years ago is not repeated.

Joyce Kazembe must take us all for fools when she proclaims Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) is one of the best electoral bodies, considering it presided over the inordinately delayed and highly suspicious electoral outcome of 2008.

Kazembe even says she is “arrogant” in defending ZEC personnel.

Arrogance is a defining feature of electoral authoritarianism; election administrators act in disregard of free and fair outcomes.

A focus on electoralism will ensure that such institutional arrogance is checked.

An emphasis on electoralism also means the MDC will focus more on restoring its image that has been soiled by corruption, and reconnecting with the disenchanted grassroots.

According primacy to electoralism also entails increased focus oncampaigns and policies that appeal to the electorate.
The whole point here is that constitutions are fundamental but agents of democratic change should not lose sight of what may bring real change.

It is commendable that the MDC is prepared to rule under curtailed executive powers. But for it to realise this noble dream, it must, of course, win the next election first.

Going by Biti’s observation about the disdain towards constitutionalism in Africa and Zimbabwe, a Mugabe victory will
ultimately render the current constitutional reform a financially wasteful and politically futile exercise.

More energy should, therefore, be expended on removing Mugabe from power electorally. Only after his departure will constitutionalism, hopefully — matter. - Conrad Nyamutata

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