Will a New Constitution Reverse Zimbabwe’s Political and Economic Degeneration?

On Saturday March 16, 2013, Zimbabweans overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to approve a new constitution that radically changes the governance institutions of their country. It is reported that over 50 percent of the country’s 5.6 million registered voters took part in the referendum, which was conducted peacefully. More than 2,000 election observers, drawn mainly from Southern African Development Community countries, observed the election. The coalition government of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) and Morgan Tsivingari’s Movement for Democratic Change—Tsvangirai (MDC-T) supported the proposed constitution. The other two minority parties did not mount any meaningful opposition.

Among the important provisions of the constitution is that it sets a two five-year term limit for the president. Even more significant for Zimbabwe, which has seen a consistent decline in political freedoms, the new constitution provides for a Bill of Rights guaranteeing certain rights, enumerating such rights as the right to life, right to personal liberty, various political rights, rights of arrested and detained persons, freedom from torture, and many others to its citizens. The constitution will also entrench devolution and, much like recently adopted constitutions in Africa, calls for increased representation of women, reserving 60 seats for women in the National Assembly to be elected through a system of proportional representation.

Following the passage of the constitution, a serious contest is expected in about three or four months’ time when the new constitution will provide the basis for the next elections. According to some observers, it is not clear whether President Mugabe will offer himself for re-election under the new constitution although he is eligible. Even at 89 years of age, some Zimbabweans fear that Robert Mugabe will argue that this is the beginning of his new term as president. This situation is much like in the case of Kenya, wherein former President Daniel Arap Moi also contested afresh under a new constitution despite having ruled for more than 10 years.

Zimbabwe politics seem to revolve around land reform. President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has played his politics around land reform since independence in 1980. The importance of land became even more profound in the last seven or so years when the economy nearly collapsed, experiencing the worst inflation in the world’s history. Peasants resorted to subsistence farming to eke out a living under such miserable conditions. Many Zimbabweans emigrated to neighboring countries, especially South Africa. The Zimbabwe currency collapsed. Zimbabwe now uses the U.S. dollar as its official currency, together with the South African rand.

Thus, one of the dilemmas facing policymakers in Zimbabwe is how to manage to introduce a new Zimbabwe currency without hurting recent economic recovery. The use of the U.S. dollar has reduced inflation greatly, although many people lost their savings when the country adopted the U.S. dollar. The economy is slowly recovering, notably in the tobacco sector. And, by a stroke of good luck, Zimbabwe discovered huge mineral deposits, especially diamonds. Zimbabwe now has about 25 percent of the world’s diamonds.

The July 2013 elections are likely to see a major contest between ZANU-PF and MDC-T. Even if President Mugabe gives in, it is expected that ZANU-PF lieutenants will wage a thorough campaign to hold on to the leadership mantle. Political pundits expect ZANU-PF to lay a thorough electioneering machine to maintain leadership using land reform and mineral policy as major bargaining strategies.

Thus, questions still linger as to whether the new constitution will change the country’s political landscape. The major problem with Zimbabwe’s politics to date has been the concentration of power in the presidency. The new constitution has, in many ways, reduced the powers of the president while expanding the rights of the citizenry. However, to realize the full benefits promised by the constitution, it is not just enough to enact the constitution. For a country that has seen years of erosion of the rule of law, the real challenge is inculcating a culture of constitutionalism in society.