BY VOTING overwhelmingly for a new constitution, Zimbabweans have sent a clear message: they want a new beginning. This is not the blueprint for the brighter future most people long for — it still gives too much power to the president, including allowing him to meddle in the judiciary and parliament, and the drafting process was flawed — but it is a first step towards Zimbabwe’s rehabilitation.
On paper, at least, the document promotes a new form of engagement between the people of Zimbabwe and their leaders, and between Zimbabwe and the global community. The new constitution introduces a bill of rights and affirms the rule of law. It protects property rights, clarifies land rights and sets Zimbabwe on the road to building and strengthening its democratic institutions.
These are significant advances in the context of the haphazard economic policies, arbitrary about-turns and complete disregard for the rule of law that have characterised the country’s governance since independence more than 30 years ago and which have had such a devastating effect on investor sentiment towards the country. The new constitution also clarifies the succession question and imposes term limits for the first time.
This could, in theory, mean another 10 years of rule by President Robert Mugabe, but at least he will not be succeeded by a president for life. And it is now clear the first deputy president will take over if anything befalls the president.
It was not lost on Zimbabweans or international observers that on the day of the referendum on the new constitution, security forces seized the country’s best-known human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, on the same flimsy grounds the state has relied on in the past when it harassed dissidents.
That is hardly in the spirit of the new constitution and highlights the fact that constitutional democracies are only as good as the institutions that uphold them. Bad habits die hard, but at least when the police and other security agents abuse the rule of law in future — as they will — there will be no disputing the illegality of their behaviour.
Overall, the referendum was held in a relatively peaceful environment, which is also encouraging given that past elections have been characterised by violence and repression. It is to be hoped that this will carry over to the election later this year, although the stakes will certainly be higher. All of the main political parties in Zimbabwe were in favour of the new constitution, whereas the election will be hotly contested, with lucrative political careers and access to the levers of state power up for grabs. It would be naive to expect the Zimbabwean establishment, dominated as it is by Zanu (PF) officials, to give it all up without a fight just because a new constitution is in place.
Zimbabwe can take a leaf from Kenya’s book. A successful election has just been held under a new constitution. The result has been contested in the supreme court, but all sides have stuck to the rules. There has been no orchestrated violence and the security forces have been models of impartiality.
Ordinary Zimbabweans just want to get on with their lives, but they need personal freedoms and a growing economy to be able to uplift themselves. The greatest responsibility for ensuring that the new constitution starts to deliver the incremental change Zimbabwe so desperately needs, lies with Mr Mugabe. In the twilight of his career, with his legacy at stake, he must ask himself whether, when the time comes, he will leave Zimbabwe better or worse off than he found it.
If he is able to be honest with himself, the answer will be “worse off”, despite his leading role in the struggle against colonialism and white rule. However, he could mitigate the damage by allowing a free and fair election in terms of the new constitution — and accepting the outcome. – BD Live