On the 16th of March 2013, Zimbabweans voted 94.5 percent in favor of a new constitution during a referendum. The constitution enshrines basic rights and freedoms, gender rights, and sets presidential terms, while keeping a few of the old presidential powers. However doubts remain as to whether or not it will be honoured by the long-time president Robert Mugabe.
This was the first time the constitution has been successfully reformed since 1987 when President Robert Mugabe modified it, making himself executive president. Since then, Mugabe’s regime has forced citizens to endure 33 years riddled with torture, assassinations, and questionable disappearances. Mugabe’s brutal tactics culminated in the fallout of the widely contested 2008 elections. Rape, beatings, arrests, and killings were part of a state sponsored campaign of violence against the political opposition. The military went so far as to build torture camps in areas of high opposition support.
Thanks to a historical power share between Mugabe and his political opponents, the government has been able to work. Now the constitution reform has been widely praised as “peaceful, successful, and credible” by western leaders, passing with wide support and without incident. The European Union has even lifted most of its sanctions imposed against the country after the violent 2000 elections in response to the referendum. The constitution enshrines basic human and social rights for all citizens, and guarantees freedom of expression and of the media. Another major aspect of the constitution is its enshrinement of women’s rights and the establishment of a Gender Commission to deal with issues of gender discrimination. Other articles include the abolition of the Prime Minister position and a decrease in the executive powers of the president, including his ability to veto bills.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this constitution for many Zimbabweans is the implementation of fixed presidential terms. The president will now be bound to two five-year terms, with no chance of re-election after. This is something that the opposition has been fighting for since Mugabe changed the constitution. However, this section is not retroactive, meaning Mugabe can potentially stay in office for ten more years.
Despite these improvements, the constitution is not perfect. Presidential powers have not been reduced to the point where Mugabe is bound by law. The president can still appoint ministers, attorney generals, and ambassadors, and has the power to deploy the military unilaterally. The president is completely immune from any civil or criminal prosecution while in office, and all actions can be defended on the basis of ‘good faith‘.
Unfortunately the success of this constitution is completely dependant on whether or not Mugabe decides to honor it. This may seem unlikely to some, as Mugabe’s forces have continued to arrest members of the political opposition and activists, including well-known human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa. With elections set for this year, concerns are rising that the president will once again resort to violence to secure another five years. Two senior members of Mugabe’s party have said that security officials are once again considering deploying soldiers to intimidate voters ahead of this year’s elections.
While this constitution is a symbol of a free and bright future for Zimbabwe, it will remain a piece of paper unless honored by those in power. Mugabe must hold the constitution above himself in order for the country to change for the better.
(Featured photo: by a-birdie, Creative Commons, Flickr)