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Mugabe heckled: a new day for Parliament in Zimbabwe?

Once you’ve thrown an election, the preferred next step is to return matters to normalcy, dissipating the anger of those who opposed you by making your leadership appear routine and inevitable. That’s been Robert Mugabe’s plan in Zimbabwe. As talks about a power-sharing government have dragged on, Mugabe’s moved forward to reconvene parliament, on schedule, perhaps hoping to return to a state where legislators solemly rubber-stamp his legislation.

The opposition has opposed reconvening parliament, as it’s counter to the memorandum of understanding ZANU-PF and MDC signed in July, agreeing to hold talks on all matters of substance before resuming the process of governing. Some MDC (opposed to Mugabe, now the ruling party in parliament) parliamentarians have suggested boycotting Parliament rather than allowing it to become a rubber stamp, taking to the streets in acts of civil disobedience.

They’ve tried something quite different, and so far, it’s going surprisingly well. Parliament elected Lovemore Moyo, the chairman of MDC, as parliament speaker, a powerful position, by a significant majority. The speaker can control what gets debated and when, a powerful advantage, and may be able to keep certain legislation off the table – it augurs a new parliamentary climate for Mugabe, one where the Parliament can block his legislation, procedurally or substantively.

But that probably didn’t prepare Uncle Bob for the reception he got when he opened parliamentary session today. Appearing in full regalia, accompanied by a 21-gun salute and a military flyover, Mugabe was jeered and heckled during his address. MDC members refused to stand to acknowledge him, and as he spoke, they shouted him down as he made particularly egregious statements (declaring that all parties had been responsible for election violence, and that Zimbabwe had now “moved beyond it”, for instance).

The defiance, which included signing the MDC anthem “ZANU is Rotten”, is unprecedented in Zimbabwean politics. One of the surprising aspcts of Zimbabwean politics is the extent to which institutions and procedures are respected, even when outcomes have been rigged. It’s very unlikely that Mugabe expected this reception. As a commentator on BBC radio pointed out this morning, state-controlled television simply didn’t know what to do: should they cut away from the speech, disrespecting the (alleged) President) or should they continue to broadcast the dissent of MDC protesters?

Let’s assume that MDC’s defiance continues. The showdown is likely to be over budgetary issues, when Mugabe’s government tries to pass measures to continue paying salaries to security, army and intelligence forces. (A currency in free-fall requires frequent changes in budgeting.) If MDC refuses these budget changes – as they likely will – a showdown seems inevitable.

Two things to watch for:

– In a parliamentary system like Zimbabwe’s, the President can call for new elections at any time. If Mugabe concludes that he cannot govern with this parliament, it’s possible he’ll call new elections and attempt to intimidate opponents as he did in the run-off, hoping to regain parliamentary control. This would take some time, and the country would be effectively paralyzed in the interim.

– The parliamentary majority currently stands at 12 individuals. It’s possible that intimidation, detention or violence could erode this majority. I would expect to see systematic harrasment of MDC MPs, including arrests and possibly farm burnings or kidnappings. While I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, Zim watchers should pay close attention to any of these reports, as they might point to a pattern designed to create a majority without forming a new parliament.

Update: Alas, there’s really no need to wait and see what happens next.
The New York Times reports late night door knocks on the hotel rooms of legislators, and attempts to arrest 8 opposition MPs for a number of alleged crimes. CNN reports five arrests of opposition MPs since Monday.

6 thoughts on “Mugabe heckled: a new day for Parliament in Zimbabwe?”

  1. Hey Ethan – nice to see you’re still blogging on zim, although i think it’s a bit of a warped view that you present. i almost ate my computer reading through the posting above. i guess i should just write one that shows a different perspective :-) and that also addresses what i think are some critical flaws or misrepresentations in your piece. the international press certainly shows the MDC in a really powerful position as a result of winning the office of speaker, which was the case before both MDC and ZANU agree to (check out the posting entitled the Gorbachev Factor on this blog by an former MDC parliamentarian, now an MDC Senator — http://davidcoltart.com/archive/category/personalblog). but now what has happened since then is that there are two houses of power — the lower house, and the upper house (the Senate) and legislation is now a bi-cameral process. i’m surprised that no-where in your posting do you make mention of the Senate and the fact that ZANU PF has a majority in the senate and that the lowe house can do nothing without it passing through the upper house and the consent of the president.

    it’s also pretty amazing that the ‘international community’ keeps on this issue of legitimacy of mugabe’s presidency and yet no one dares to pay attention to the legality of his presidency which is actually legal by zim law, made by ALL the parties currently represented in the current and previous legislature. the ‘opposition’ (MDC–both of them) love to spend energy on the emotional and yet side-step and ignore facts and legal dimensions of our current political situation.

    if anyone really, TRULY believes that tsvangirayi pulled out of the run-off election for the reasons they stated, then that is indeed very sad.

    anyway, i’m going to write up something more comprehensive that perhaps can bring a different light on this matter. keep a watch on my blog at TakingITGlobal and i’ll also email you when i post.


    ~ dumi

  2. You’re right, Dumi – the fact that ZANU-PF controls the Senate hasn’t been widely discussed. That’s an important observation and points more towards a likely stalemate in governance.

    I find it hard to be consoled by the argument that Mugabe’s presidency is legitimate because it’s legal – the climate of violence and intimidation is well documented and it’s difficult for me to understand how you can be comfortable with an electoral outcome in which a candidate leading in the popular vote feels sufficiently threatened that he pulls out of the second round of elections. You allude to reasons Tsvangarai pulled out other than fears for his personal safety and safety of his supporters – I look forward to reading that argument on your blog. Please let me know when you post it.

    And yes, any time a post makes you want to eat your computer, the right reaction is to offer a blogpost. Looking forward to seeing what you have to say.

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  5. Robert Mugabe is a snail of Africa, my heart really goes when I think of those poor Zimbabweans. I am Zimbabwean living in England and I used to live in Harare, I must say that my country has been ruined by world’s biggest terrorist which is Mugabe, look at the exchange rate, poverty, economic conditions of Zimbabwe. When I think about it my heart really goes, I wonder why Mugabe does not let citizens of Zimbabwe decide the future of the country and also Mugabe must realize that he is in power since last 30 years his mind is getting old and he cannot think the same as young generation can think, so he must resign for the better of Zimbabweans. Cheers

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