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Forecasting Zimbabwe's political landscape
8 February 2013

On Wednesday, 6 February, Zimbabwe's parliament unanimously adopted the proposed constitution tabled by the Constitution Select Committee of Parliament (COPAC), comprising the three coalition government parties in Zimbabwe. This outcome was expected as the leaders of the three parties - Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations - last month ended more than three years of acrimonious debate by striking a deal on a compromise constitution. This raised the question of whether the constitution-making process had been hijacked by political leaders.

While COPAC insists the proposed charter is based upon Zimbabweans views gathered during the outreach phase of the constitution-making process, there remains concern that the need to bargain and compromise in order to accommodate divergent party interests may have resulted in a give-and-take constitution that does not mirror the national soul. Officials say the draft constitution will be voted on by referendum by the end of March, to allow Zimbabweans to decide whether the draft reflects their views. But the referendum is likely to be a mere formality given that the three governing parties have endorsed the draft constitution. This referendum will in turn set the stage for elections, probably during the course of this year, in line with the SADC-mediated Global Political Agreement (GPA) of September 2008. Following the disputed 2008 elections, ZANU-PF and the two MDC formations had to enter the power-sharing agreement to avoid plunging the country deeper into conflict over the electoral results.

Given Zimbabwe's well-documented history of election-related violence, the adoption of a new democratic constitution is central to the GPA's goal of creating an environment conducive to peaceful, free and fair elections.

The conciliatory stance of the GPA principals and parties over the draft constitution remarkably means that Zimbabwe's political weather at present is sunny. However, Zimbabwe's new constitution will inevitably spur new battles, not to mention watershed elections, to terminate the shaky coalition government that both President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T have conceded to be dysfunctional. Set against this backdrop, there is a danger that Zimbabwe's political landscape could become hazardous as the election battle lines are drawn.

The outlook for the conduct of the referendum and the next polls is already gloomy. Finance Minister and MDC-T negotiator Tendai Biti claims that the US$219 million cost of conducting the referendum and elections is too high for the cash-strapped national treasury and foreign donations may be needed. Yet, there is still hope of clearer skies. Having already supported the constitution-making process, the United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator Alain Noudehou expressed the willingness of the UN to financially and technically assist in the forthcoming referendum if requested to do so by the Zimbabwean government. The neutrality of the global body may assuage sensitivities around external funding for national polls. In any case, Zimbabwe has been broke for over a decade, but elections have still been held.

Meanwhile, robust and consistent communiques have emerged from Southern African Development Community (SADC) summits since the March 2011 Troika Summit of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation in Livingstone, Zambia, urging the GPA parties to develop and implement a roadmap with timelines to free and fair elections. Given the tortuous road to the new constitution, the development and implementation of a clear roadmap may be protracted, making the June 2013 election timeframe mooted by officials too optimistic. It is possible that the parties could still haggle over critical fundamentals such as the harmonisation of old laws with the new constitution, the creation and operationalisation of effective and professional institutions to run the polls, and the implementation of mechanisms to prevent or handle political violence and intimidation.

Although a new constitution is a significant precondition for free and fair elections, it is important to recognise that constitution-drafting is part of a broader democratic reform process and that no matter how plausible the new national charter may be, it is not self-implementing. Notably, the GPA parties' fixation on constitutional reform and polls has also resulted in the relegation of essential parallel processes such as voter education to the back burner.

Notwithstanding this, the serious contestations for parliamentary seats at party level will transform Zimbabwe's political landscape significantly as a new crop of leaders emerge from these processes. The influential military also seems to be toning down its rhetoric about vetoing an MDC victory which its considers to be an unfavourable election outcome. The fact that many security personnel want to contest as MPs indicates that the security sector may be considering elected office as a way to protect its privileges and assets rather than military force, which would be opposed regionally and internationally. It is critical that the elections produce quality leaders who can provide vision and direction and legislators who can improve the quality of representation in order to ensure sunny skies ahead for Zimbabwe.

Significantly, the lack of regular and credible opinion polls makes establishing a political bellwether and predicting Zimbabwe's election outcome risky business. According to the Freedom House survey of 2012 - 'Change and 'new' politics in Zimbabwe' - of the 53% respondents who declared their political party preference, 20% said they would support MDC-T (down from 38% in 2010) and 31% ZANU-PF (up from 17% in 2010). Both parties would certainly have unpacked and derived lessons from the study, making the post-referendum campaign period critical.

There are, however, three possible scenarios resulting from Zimbabwe's next election, which is likely to be closely contested. Firstly, ZANU-PF could win, most likely by a small margin. The political old guard would continue to rule and the interests of the securocrats would be protected. The elected ZANU-PF government would implement some reforms to shed its pariah status on the international stage. The nature of the reforms would depend on the intra-party succession battles pitching hardliners against moderates. The international community would be expected to respect the outcome  (notwithstanding its antagonistic relationship with President Mugabe and his party), remove all remaining sanctions against Zimbabwe and assist the country on its path to socioeconomic recovery. In the second scenario, should MDC-T win, SADC and the African Union (AU) may have to guarantee a peaceful transfer of political power amidst possible reluctance by ZANU-PF hardliners to accept the election results. Lastly, if neither party secures the votes necessary for a clear victory, the country may see a repeat of the 2008 process. In this case there may be new power-sharing agreements and a new SADC mediation process - a scenario that sees Zimbabwe not making any political progress at all given the current policy coordination paralysis of the unwieldy coalition government. This third scenario is thus a highly undesirable outcome.

Gwinyayi Dzinesa, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria

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