Mugabe and Maputo: the consequences of SADC’s communiqué

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In this opinion piece, Pedzisai Ruhanya looks at the shifting political landscape in Zimbabwe. He argues that Mugabe’s recent machinations have backfired at a domestic and a regional level and that this may have significant consequences for the upcoming elections. Pedzisai is a PhD candidate and Director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

The ruling of Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court that an election should be called by 31 July 2013 has sparked bitter disputes over the judicial interpretation of the constitution. My aim here is not to address these legal debates, but to analyze and interpret the unintended political consequences of this decision in the context of the robust Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) communiqué issued during the Maputo summit this weekend.

The message of this communique was simple: SADC would support democratic progress, not dictatorial practice. Its directives hit hard against the strategies that Mugabe and ZANU-PF have used to maintain their political dominance, and this will exacerbate tensions within the party. Equally as encouraging, however, was the united front that opposition parties demonstrated against Mugabe’s political maneuvering. This unity is the stuff that electoral victories are made of.

Ironically, it was the urgency with which Mugabe embraced the Constitutional Court’s decision last week that critics found so suspicious. The more that the President tried to frantically position himself as a faithful adherent to the rule of law, the more his critics concluded that they were witnessing a clear case judicial subversion under the cloak of legality.

Given his glaring disregard for the rule of law throughout his 33-years of authoritarian administration, this skepticism was hardly surprising. Attempts by ZANU-PF and Mugabe to evade the courts stretch back to the 1980s, when they failed to implement court decisions regarding the violent Gukurahundi massacres and the illegal detention of ZAPU supporters. Things did not improve over the years that followed, as the regime pardoned politically aligned criminals, failed to protect the independence of lawyers and, most recently, failed to bring-to-book the ZANU-PF-aligned actors associated with the 2008 electoral violence.

With this record behind him, the idea that Mugabe was, in any way, slavishly tied to the rule of law was clearly fallacious. On the contrary, it was apparent that the leader had, over the years, become a master of selective application, using the law as a weapon to persecute his political adversaries. Recognising this, SADC’s communiqué ordered Mugabe to approach the court to reverse its ruling and return to Parliament with his coalition partners to amend the Electoral Act, which he had passed by decree, calling the July elections.

The communiqué also made several other core demands, including a call for the immediate deployment of election observers into the country. The political ramifications of this move are twofold. Firstly, this international presence would leave little room for ZANU-PF to co-ordinate and mount organized, state-sponsored violence. Secondly, electoral registration would be vastly improved. Currently, would-be voters within the country are being systematically disenfranchised by employees within the Registrar-General’s office, who are manipulating voter registration to ZANU-PF’s advantage. The immediate deployment of SADC observers could expose this attempt to deny thousands of citizens, especially those previously regarded as aliens and urban residents, their constitutional and democratic right to vote in the coming elections. This, in turn, could have important repercussions for the structure of the electoral landscape.

However, SADC’s ability to shape the elections will not be limited to the deployment of observers: in the same communique, the regional body compelled the coalition government to have SADC participants on its Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee (JOMIC), the multiparty panel that was established in 2009 to oversee the implementation of the Global Political Agreement. Previously, SADC members were only granted observer status on the committee. This shift, in conjunction with the presence of observers, enables SADC to contribute to substantive decision-making in the coming elections. Their presence could be decisive in fostering credible, free, fair and legitimate elections in the country. It will also make the group’s findings on Zimbabwe’s electoral processes and outcomes more solid than ever.

Equally as important were calls in the Maputo communiqué for an end to the military’s partisan role in Zimbabwe’s political and electoral processes and a push to amend repressive laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). These acts, together with a plethora of other repressive laws, hugely impinge on the civil and political liberties of the country’s citizens. During the election period in particular, they become flexible and forceful weapons in the incumbent’s arsenal, which can be used to undermine opposition parties and influence electoral outcomes.

In all, the Maputo communique should be seen as a powerful rejection of Mugabe’s authoritarian practices, and ZANU-PF’s hold on the state. SADC’s position will have great ramifications for Mugabe’s presidential candidature and the internal stability of ZANU-PF.

It is crucial to remember that these decisions by SADC may not have been taken had hardliners within ZANU-PF not encouraged Mugabe to unilaterally announce the upcoming election dates. It is now clear that the manipulation of the Constitutional Court attracted a good deal of international scrutiny that ultimately worked in the favour of those it supposedly outfoxed; MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai and MDC-M leader Welshman Ncube.

Those in ZANU PF who were not consulted about the decision to embroil the Constitutional Court in the regime’s political maneuvers are likely to be angered as they realize the degree to which Mugabe’s power play has unwittingly given diplomatic leverage to their regional opponents. Nor will it have escaped their attention that SADC’s decisions have increased the political capital of their domestic opponents. Morgan Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube appear, in contrast to Mugabe, as reasonable and law-abiding figures who are victims of a choreographed political strategy to subvert the democratic process under a judicial guise. These political losses for ZANU-PF will undoubtedly exacerbate faction fights within the party, which could be highly destabilizing ahead of elections.

But not only have ZANU-PF’s blunders provided Tsvangirai and Ncube valuable political capital, they have also provided them with common political ground. After the Constitutional Court ruling, the MDC formations and other parties called an urgent meeting in which they agreed to mount a combined onslaught against what they saw as a political, not a legal, judgement.

What followed was an apparent division of labor between Tsvangirai and Ncube in Maputo. The former clearly and coherently attacked and exposed the role of ZANU-PF behind the court ruling. The latter, a sharp legal mind, explored the technicalities of the court’s decision and tore it to pieces. Should the MDC formations continue to unite around areas of critical national democratic interest, the electoral pact needed to dislodge ZANU-PF at the upcoming polls might slowly start to become a reality.

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