Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
There are a few countries in the world that polarise public opinion more than Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe’s utterances often appear to be crafted to cause controversy. So it was recently that he added antagonism and hostility to the political debate by remarking that a violence-free election is better than a new constitution. Since those remarks, Zimbabweans across the political divide have been angrily trying to come to terms with the merits and demerits of Mugabe’s dubious proposition.
Mugabe is correct in saying Zimbabweans hanker for a violence-free election, but I smell a rat here. It is not the rodent that interests me in Mugabe’s remarks, but rather his sleight of hand in creating the false impression that the choice is between a violence-free election and a new constitution. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The people of Zimbabwe want both a peaceful election and a new democratic constitution. Indeed, according to the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (Copac) on the new constitution, 1,118,760 Zimbabweans participated in constitutional outreach meetings discussing how they want to be governed. We can argue about what a democratic constitution is but we cannot argue about whether people want it or not. Put simply, peaceful elections and a democratic constitution are not mutually exclusive.
Truly democratic elections are ultimately beyond which party comes into power. They are not an end in themselves but a means to an end. A constitution is a kind of contract between the governors and the governed. A constitution is important because one of the things that it seeks to do is to regulate the exercise of power. The demand for a new democratic constitution is neither an MDC nor a ZANU-PF demand; rather it is a demand from the people of Zimbabwe.
Indeed the liberation struggle was about democratising the state. Those who have any doubts should revisit the interview Mugabe gave to the BBC in 1976 where he makes the case that the liberation struggle was about fighting for “a state-based on democracy.”
For all its chiding of the constitution-making process, ZANU-PF is well-represented in the same process. Every other week a co-chair of Copac from ZANU-PF affixes his signature to an update of the constitution-making process. Furthermore, just last year ZANU-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo was waxing lyrical that Mugabe would only call for polls once a new constitution is in place. What Damascene act has happened for the party to deviate from this position?
The only conclusion that can be reached is that there is a coterie of individuals in ZANU-PF who are merchants of chaos. There is a ‘fifth column’ in the party trying to subvert the people’s will. These are the same individuals who were the architects of the campaign of brutality in the run-up to the blood-soaked June 2008 presidential election run-off.
No one would be foolish enough to suggest that the constitution will solve all of Zimbabwe’s problems. Far from it; Zimbabwe’s crisis is not simply a disagreement on elections and the constitution. It is not just about a change of government, but rather a change of the political and governing culture. It is important that the constitution reflects people’s aspirations, and gives true meaning to the phrase: “The people shall govern”. But in the same breath, democracy should not be conflated with majoritarianism, lest we risk tyranny of the majority.
There is no gainsaying that supreme power rests with the people as the Arab revolutions have so remarkably demonstrated, but this power must of necessity be exercised through the representation of diverse interests. The best test for freedom and tolerance is freedom and tolerance for those who act and think differently. There must be a balance between the rights of minorities and the will of the majority; otherwise a tyrannical majority is created.
A genuine democratic constitution should not just carry the views of the majority, but it should also balance their views with what constitutes international best practice. Zimbabwe really has to deal with three challenges. The first has to do with developing a mature political system that allows cooperation and responsible competition between political parties, where credible elections are held and losing parties can live with the result until the next polls.
The second area has to do with security issues that threaten to undermine meaningful reform. This is all the more problematic because the command structure of the security services in Zimbabwe is really made up of the armed wing of ZANU-PF, which has never transformed into professional security services. A dialogue is needed with this command structure. It is true that some atrocities have been committed and negotiations without penalty may encourage a culture of impunity. But in the final analysis dialogue is still needed with this group and with the rest of the country so that a formula for peace with the past is arrived at with a clear understanding that the violence of the past will not be repeated again.
The third and final challenge has to do with socio-economic justice issues as well as matters of distribution and re-distribution of resources. Socio-economic rights are fundamental to the enjoyment of a better life as well as to stability.
These are major issues but they are not insurmountable. And despite all the ugly rhetoric and political grandstanding, it is not too late for the country to have a new democratic constitution and a violence-free election. Especially if Mugabe helps - rather than deliberately hinders - the process.