Zimbabwe has been gripped by political controversy over the past six weeks, as opposition parties and activists objected to the passing of two bills amending the country’s constitution, threatening to erode Zimbabwe’s ailing democracy further. The bills pushed through several changes, including removing age limits for judges and an extension of presidential powers to appoint members of the judiciary and vice presidents.
Before the amendments, the appointment of judges required public interviews and scrutiny. At the same time, vice presidents were elected officials, but the changes have strengthened the power of the ruling ZANU-PF party, and in particular, the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. In a country that faces economic turmoil, a crisis of democracy and the lingering effects of COVID-19, these developments are particularly significant.
The impact of the constitutional changes has to be understood in the context of recent political turmoil in Zimbabwe and the history of opposition politics. President Mnangagwa has been criticized for increasingly authoritarian actionsby security services against opposition politicians and activists, including arrests, abductions, torture and imprisonments. In the most prominent recent episode, Member of Parliament Joana Mamombe and activists Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, all of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, were abducted, tortured and sexually assaulted by security services in May 2020 before being left severely injured by the side of a road. Since then, they have been repeatedly arrested, imprisoned and prosecuted on various dubious charges. Their experiences and other similar instances involving activists and trade unionists have contributed to a climate of fear among opposition supporters and impeded criticism of the government, including the constitutional changes.
Zimbabwe’s opposition has been further weakened by the conflict between various factions of the broader MDC movement, leading to legal battles and the expulsion of opposition MPs in parliament. While the MDC Alliance, led by Nelson Chamisa, claims the most support among the Zimbabwean people, a rival MDC party led by Douglas Mwonzora has refused to accept Chamisa’s leadership and split the movement. Allegations from Chamisa supporters that Mwonzora is secretly working with the government have further increased tensions and contributed to the opposition’s weakness in the face of an increasingly violent and powerful government.
The constitutional changes are also significant because of the history of the MDC and opposition politics in Zimbabwe. The opposition movement began as a group of civil society activists, church organizations and trade unions in the 1990s, who coalesced around a call for constitutional change to reign in presidential power. This constitutional reform movement ultimately formed into the MDC party in 2000. Much of the confrontation between the party and ZANU-PF in the 2000s centred around the shaping of a new constitution. After a violent, contested election in 2008, the two parties came together for a collaborative process which ultimately led to a new constitution in 2013. The document was hailed as a victory after over a decade of struggle by activists, and many of the provisions were seen as important constraints on government power.
In practice, the 2013 constitution was never fully implemented, and the ZANU-PF government has continued to flout many of its key elements. Several important opposition and civil society initiatives have focused on demands for implementation of the constitution, so the legal erosion of the document marks a significant blow to the MDC and its supporters. The amendments also set a precedent for further changes that could strengthen the government in the future, making it more difficult to dislodge through a democratic electoral process.
It is also important to note that the constitutional changes have strengthened the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in his position within the ruling party. Mnangagwa came to power in a coup in 2017, after the Zimbabwean armed forces ousted long-time president Robert Mugabe. The coup was led by General Constantino Chiwenga, who subsequently became one of Mnangagwa’s vice presidents and is currently the sole occupant of the position. There has been much speculation about the tension between the two men and the possibility of Chiwenga succeeding Mnangagwa or even using his military connections to supplant him. The constitutional amendment deprives the vice president of an electoral mandate at the next election, suggesting that Mnangagwa has moved to fortify his position against Chiwenga over the long term.
Overall, these developments indicate that Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF are likely to consolidate their grip on Zimbabwean politics for the foreseeable future. The divided opposition has been unable to mount a successful challenge to the constitutional changes in parliament, while the judiciary is increasingly accountable to the president. Meanwhile, the threat of internal factional challenges within ZANU-PF may have been dampened by the president’s new powers. While these developments may be good for the government, they do not bode well for democracy or the prospect of positive change in Zimbabwe, as it, as it continues to grapple with an economic crisis and the effects of COVID-19.