Zimbabwe ready to end reserved seats for whites

Zimbabwe plans to abolish 20 seats reserved for whites in the National Assembly and 10 white posts for senators. But this does not mean that minorities will no longer be represented in Parliament. This was made clear by government ministers speaking after President Canaan Banana announced, at yesterday's opening of Parliament, that the white seats would be abolished later this year.

According to one political analyst here, abolishing the entrenched seats will allow the governing party to ``select'' its white opposition.

Although abolition of the white seats may be a popular move in this black-majority-ruled country, local analysts say it will do nothing to ease tensions between the two main black parties, exacerbated by renewed dissident activity in the western regions. Nor will it improve Zimbabwe's visibly worsening economy or end its involvement in Mozambique's civil war - which the President pledged to maintain.

With the expiration of the seven-year period, during which racial representation was entrenched in the British-sponsored Lancaster House Constitution of 1980, the way is open for the government to abolish racial representation both in the National Assembly and in the Senate. But ministers said steps would be taken to maintain a nonracial society by creating a new mechanism to ensure that ethnic minorities have representation.

Currently, there are 20 white members in the 100-seat National Assembly and 10 out of 40 senators in the upper chamber are white.

Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's ruling party has long been determined to abolish racial representation. This is largely because it was forced to accept the Constitution at the independence talks in 1979. It is also because the white electorate continues to return supporters of Ian Smith, prime minister during white rule in the 1970s.

The actual mechanics of constitutional reform are unclear. Ministers say there will be three separate reform bills. The first will eliminate the entrenched white seats replacing them with members of both houses elected by the existing members of Parliament. This will overcome the need to hold fresh elections only two years into the Mugabe government's second term.

The second bill will establish an executive presidency, similar to the United States presidency, and Mr. Mugabe will move up to that post from his existing position as prime minister. The third bill will abolish the senate and establish a single-chamber parliament.

The abolition of the white seats is a top priority and can be expected to be enacted before the end of the year, but the legislation for the executive presidency and the abolition of the senate will take longer.

Though there is no surprise and little white opposition to the long-expected action, there is a good deal of cynicism among whites as to the effectiveness of any minority representation. Since the whites who will be brought into Parliament to represent minority interests will depend on support from the ruling party, they are unlikely to be an effective opposition.

The abolition of the white seats is not, however, a completely foregone conclusion. Mugabe needs 70 votes in the 100-seat Parliament to change the Constitution. At present he has 67 votes and can probably rely on the main black opposition party, and even on some so-called white independents, for support. Critics say some independents will vote for abolition on the understanding that they will be elected, under the new system, to represent minority opinion.

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