The MDC should respect parliament
OPINION: The MDC's booing and jeering of Robert Mugabe as he gave his opening address at parliament was ill-advised. Sure, it will have delighted the western media, but it made the MDC look like boozers' league rejects, rather than a supposed government-in-waiting.
It could be argued that Mugabe has earned the right to his public barracking. But, as we watched the MDC performance, one thought ran through every Zimbabwean’s mind; if this is how they behave now, what would they be like in power? Certainly, Mugabe was humiliated, but so too was the new speaker of the house of assembly, the MDC’s Lovemore Moyo, whose fundamental task is to preserve the dignity of parliament, and create an enabling environment for serious discussion.
Tuesday’s noise factory could have consequences. First, it will give plentiful ammunition to Zanu-PF hardliners. They have been insisting that Mugabe must retain executive power in any deal with the opposition MDC. Now they will be saying that the MDC is an immature opposition, and will pressure Mugabe to form a cabinet as quickly as possible. Second, it will give the hard men another excuse to crack down, and unleash the eager, voracious predators from within the war veterans, Central Intelligence Organisation, police and army. There will likely be a new wave of arrests and beatings as they try to avenge their humiliation, and prevent MDC MPs from taking their seats, particularly when there is debate over major legislation. Third, it will make the speaker’s job that much harder. Zanu-PF will not believe that Moyo was not part of the heckling, and he will have a real task on his hands to maintain order in the house when parliament reconvenes in October.
This parliament could be the most important since independence. The combination of the MDC’s slight majority in the lower house and ownership of the speaker’s chair, means that should Mugabe fully form a cabinet, it will not be done with parliamentary approval, and it will be impossible for Zanu-PF, and President Mbeki, to "sell" any new cabinet as the legitimate representatives of the Zimbabwean people.
But Zanu-PF will fire all manner of legal salvoes in its determination to retain legitimacy; and for the state, the much-abused constitution is always the heavy artillery. According to the constitution, 180 days is the maximum period allowed between official sittings of parliament – hence the reopening of parliament. Furthermore, once parliament is in session, a cabinet must be formed as soon as possible. Zanu-PF also insists that the memorandum of understanding, which explicitly forbids the reconvening of parliament and the appointment of a new cabinet without the approval of all the negotiatory parties, is not a binding contract. The legal tussles between the parties will run and run. However, the perennial questions about MDC strategy remain: for them to petition Mbeki on the illegality of the current parliament, whilst participating in that same parliament, is nonsensical. You cannot have your sadza and eat it. If they are really opposed to this sitting of parliament, then they should have boycotted the proceedings entirely.
The real significance of this parliament is that it could revive the meaning of that institution. It usually rubber-stamps ruling-party legislation, but Zimbabwe’s parliament is far from being a broken institution. Even post-2000, there have been serious legislative debates. The expectation is that, at the very least, the new parliament will provide a forum for robust debate, and reintroduce the principle of executive accountability. Having a speaker in the lower house will empower the MDC there; the senate president is from Zanu-PF, and it will dominate the upper house. So, there will likely be a zero-sum game in parliament, as each side tries to block the other. The great danger for the MDC is that it will be tempted to block everything. This would backfire, because Zanu-PF would retaliate in kind. The MDC must grasp, and quickly, that this is its chance to show that it is serious. If it wants to be seen as credible, then it must oppose the seductions of a perennial "no". Sometimes, it will need to flirt with "yes".
Ultimately, the two sides will have to work together. The constitution has been used and abused by Zanu-PF, and there have been highly repressive amendments and new bills passed. The opposition should scrutinise all legislation, but it should never forget its duty of care to the Zimbabwean people. Not all the legislation passed in parliament has been villainous, and whilst the MDC should oppose repressive legislation, it should work with Zanu-PF to pass constructive bills. The public finance management bill, the energy laws amendment bill, the older persons bill, the education bill; and the construction industry council bill, all of which are to be tabled in the new parliament, are actually of sound intent. These may be bills on which all sides can do business. The national indigenisation and empowerment bill, on the other hand, will be highly contentious. The ministerial budgets will become major battlegrounds, as will the constitution itself.
There’s the possibility that Mugabe may close parliament and rule by decree. Assuming that parliament does remain open for business, the danger is that it will become nihilistic, with no cooperation at all between the parties, and even the good legislation being buried along with the bad. If the political antagonists are mature, they will not allow the stalled political negotiations to contaminate parliament; indeed it is all the more imperative that parliament functions. The battles for power between and within Zanu-PF, and the two MDCs (and possible breakaway groups) will continue.
There will be all kinds of political horse-trading, making and breaking of deals, and crossing the floor, in this session of parliament. That is to be expected; but millions of suffering Zimbabweans also expect results, and apart from being an arena of political jousting, parliament should now enable constructive legislation which benefits ordinary Zimbabweans. The MDC needs to drop its "Parliament is illegal – we want no part of it" whinging and get on with the job of delivering the constructive change they have promised. Zanu-PF also has to realise that the days of a rubber-stamp parliament and getting legislation passed through the back-door are over.