Will a new constitution make Zimbabwe more democratic?

A draft constitution, released this week, proposes term limits for presidents, as well as a commission to study past crimes against humanity.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe follows proceedings at celebrations to mark 32 years of independence of Zimbabwe, in Harare, in this April 18 photo. In an address Mugabe said that political violence must be 'buried in the past' to move the nation toward free and unhindered elections.

The fractious coalition government that rules Zimbabwe released a draft constitution this week that seeks to limit presidential terms to just 10 years, and to establish a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission to look into human rights violations allegedly committed during President Robert Mugabe's 32 years in power.

The draft document – which will require approval by Mr. Mugabe's cabinet as well as Zimbabwe's opposition-dominated parliament – is a harbinger of the final product that is expected to pave way for elections probably next year, after the flawed and violent elections in 2008, which claimed the lives of over 300 supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Mr. Tsvangirai, a fierce critic of Mr. Mugabe, joined Mugabe's government after nearly a year of political stalemate between his own Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Mugabe's ZANU-PF party over the 2008 election results.

After he was widely rejected – by the international community, including the African Union – as the legitimate president of Zimbabwe following the bloody June polls, Mugabe was forced into marriage with his rival Tsvangirai into a coalition government three years ago. 

The coalition government – a product of much international pressure and months of negotiation – was mandated to come up with a new constitution in order to hold freer and fairer elections. Friction between the coalition parties has been growing in recent months, and Mugabe's ZANU-PF is thought to seek elections by the end of this year.

This week, Mugabe's cabinet, which includes members of Tsvangirai's party as well as those of a smaller MDC faction led by Welshman Ncube, will study the draft constitution before it is sent on to the parliament for debate in three months’ time. If approved by the legislature the same constitution will then go for a referendum.

While the 2008 elections ended poorly, both MDC and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party are thought to be in full agreement that elections are the key to a peaceful transition of power, there is disagreement over timing and the manner in which they should be carried out. Analysts also point out that, given Mugabe's continued control over the military and security agencies, a fresh constitution is by no means a guarantee that any new round of elections will be free or fair. Mugabe led the guerrilla warfare that ousted the colonial regime in 1980, and today, rumors that he excised proposed laws to guarantee the rights of gay Zimbabweans also suggests that the octogenarian president intends to make his mark on the future constitution long after he leaves office.  

It is that very question – when Mugabe leaves office – that has hogged the limelight.

Small wonder. Mugabe's rule has witnessed the slaughter of rival liberation parties, the unpaid confiscation of lands from white commercial farmers, and the economic meltdown of the country that led to inflation rates of more than 1 million percent.

According to a draft of the constitution, obtained by the Monitor, the constitution is very clear that any future president will face strict term limits. Chapter 6.8 sub section (2) reads “A person must not hold office of President for more than two terms whether continuous or not, under this constitution and the term of office of president is period of five years.

Term limits aside, it may be the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission which causes the most discomfort among members of Mugabe's inner circle. In the early 1980s, Mugabe sent his notorious 5th brigade in a counter-insurgency campaign called "Gukurahundi," which reportedly killed 20,000 civilians, and a separate anti-slum measure called Murambatsvina in 2005, which destroyed the homes of opponents in urban and rural areas and left millions homeless. Together with a proposed Public Protector's Office, this commission would have powers to dig into both past crimes against humanity as well as ongoing corruption and abuse of power by Zimbabwe's political elites.

In his weekly blog, political analyst Takura Zhangazha writes that the draft constitution is unimpressive, because it reflects more of the main party's desire to remain in power, rather than a substantial change of the country's political process. “Zimbabwe's current constitutional reform process, whichever way one would like to view it, is devoid of a necessary national political dignity or seriousness,” he writes.

Mr. Zhangazha blames arguments that have “ranged from issues to do with outreach reports, donor funding, the role of political parties, and at the time of writing, issues to do with the final content of the draft constitution” as weaknesses for the forthcoming constitution.

The exercise, Zhangazha adds, was “highly politicized” and “reflective of partisan political positions that suit solely the pursuit of political power at the expense of the public interest.”

*The Monitor's correspondent in Harare could not be named for security reasons.

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