Once you’ve thrown an election, the preferred next step is to return matters to normalcy, dissipating the anger of those who opposed you by making your leadership appear routine and inevitable. That’s been Robert Mugabe’s plan in Zimbabwe. As talks about a power-sharing government have dragged on, Mugabe’s moved forward to reconvene parliament, on schedule, perhaps hoping to return to a state where legislators solemly rubber-stamp his legislation.
The opposition has opposed reconvening parliament, as it’s counter to the memorandum of understanding ZANU-PF and MDC signed in July, agreeing to hold talks on all matters of substance before resuming the process of governing. Some MDC (opposed to Mugabe, now the ruling party in parliament) parliamentarians have suggested boycotting Parliament rather than allowing it to become a rubber stamp, taking to the streets in acts of civil disobedience.
They’ve tried something quite different, and so far, it’s going surprisingly well. Parliament elected Lovemore Moyo, the chairman of MDC, as parliament speaker, a powerful position, by a significant majority. The speaker can control what gets debated and when, a powerful advantage, and may be able to keep certain legislation off the table – it augurs a new parliamentary climate for Mugabe, one where the Parliament can block his legislation, procedurally or substantively.
But that probably didn’t prepare Uncle Bob for the reception he got when he opened parliamentary session today. Appearing in full regalia, accompanied by a 21-gun salute and a military flyover, Mugabe was jeered and heckled during his address. MDC members refused to stand to acknowledge him, and as he spoke, they shouted him down as he made particularly egregious statements (declaring that all parties had been responsible for election violence, and that Zimbabwe had now “moved beyond it”, for instance).
The defiance, which included signing the MDC anthem “ZANU is Rotten”, is unprecedented in Zimbabwean politics. One of the surprising aspcts of Zimbabwean politics is the extent to which institutions and procedures are respected, even when outcomes have been rigged. It’s very unlikely that Mugabe expected this reception. As a commentator on BBC radio pointed out this morning, state-controlled television simply didn’t know what to do: should they cut away from the speech, disrespecting the (alleged) President) or should they continue to broadcast the dissent of MDC protesters?
Let’s assume that MDC’s defiance continues. The showdown is likely to be over budgetary issues, when Mugabe’s government tries to pass measures to continue paying salaries to security, army and intelligence forces. (A currency in free-fall requires frequent changes in budgeting.) If MDC refuses these budget changes – as they likely will – a showdown seems inevitable.
Two things to watch for:
– In a parliamentary system like Zimbabwe’s, the President can call for new elections at any time. If Mugabe concludes that he cannot govern with this parliament, it’s possible he’ll call new elections and attempt to intimidate opponents as he did in the run-off, hoping to regain parliamentary control. This would take some time, and the country would be effectively paralyzed in the interim.
– The parliamentary majority currently stands at 12 individuals. It’s possible that intimidation, detention or violence could erode this majority. I would expect to see systematic harrasment of MDC MPs, including arrests and possibly farm burnings or kidnappings. While I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, Zim watchers should pay close attention to any of these reports, as they might point to a pattern designed to create a majority without forming a new parliament.
Update: Alas, there’s really no need to wait and see what happens next.
The New York Times reports late night door knocks on the hotel rooms of legislators, and attempts to arrest 8 opposition MPs for a number of alleged crimes. CNN reports five arrests of opposition MPs since Monday.