ZIMBABWE is currently in the process of writing a new constitution. One of the major challenges lies in recognising the rights of the Zimbabwean community living abroad.
Currently Zimbabweans abroad are not allowed to vote in any election in Zimbabwe despite the fact that a great number are still on the voters’ roll. Only members of the armed forces are exempted.
The unfortunate outcome is that of the 210 MPs and 93 Senators in Zimbabwe, none represents the interests of Zimbabweans abroad.
Those in the diaspora eager to make it in politics have had to relocate back to Zimbabwe and stand in constituency elections to be elected. A case in point is that of the late John Nyamande of MDC-T who was settled in the UK together with his family but had to stand in the constituency of Rusape Central.
Zimbabwe has witnessed massive emigration in the past decade due to the economic and political instability characterising this period and still prevailing.
Most of those who have emigrated belong to the active working age group. As a result, massive brain drain has seen our highly skilled manpower seeking refuge in greener pastures in far lands. No doubt therefore that Zimbabwe has lost many of its brightest citizens.
The majority of the people in the diaspora have maintained their intimate links with Zimbabwe. Most confess that they will jump at the earliest opportunity to go back when the situation substantially improves politically and economically. A good number have established business in various sectors of the economy, and the majority still send money to beloved ones every week.
There is compelling need for this constituency to be tapped in more ways and utilise their expertise in various fields. Most people advocate for their right to vote in elections in Zimbabwe.
This is noble and the new constitution must recognise this. However, just being allowed to vote is not good enough.
What is required is a more advanced mechanism that allows the diaspora to have an established voice at the highest level in Zimbabwe and in their host countries. Voting for an MP in Rusape will never advance interests of the people living abroad. In addition to being allowed to vote, the notion of expatriate MPs can be developed to give permanence in terms of representation.
Most Zimbabweans who have emigrated are settled in South Africa, Botswana, the UK, the US and Australia. The exact numbers are not known.
However it is estimated that about three million Zimbabweans are living outside the country. These countries could be designated as constituencies for the purpose of elections. Political parties and individuals would be allowed to participate in elections and be voted as MPs.
Of course these demographic regions are not uniform, which makes the first-past-the-post and constituency-based voting difficult. The best solution would be to elect using proportional representation.
For example the UK could be allocated five parliamentary seats.
Zimbabweans in the UK would vote for the party of choice and seats would be allocated to the parties according to the number of overall votes gained.
Then the respective party would hold internal elections based on their own criteria to elect individuals who would then seat in parliament. The current system used by the European Union (EU) for election of members of the European parliament could be a good starting point.
The expatriate MP would be just like a resident MP. Same rights, duties and responsibilities.
The only difference is that they would be serving an overseas Zimbabwean constituency. It is highly improbable that they will be able to sit all sessions of parliament but concessions could be made on the number of sessions they would be required to sit in each parliamentary session.
The idea of having expatriate MPs is not without foundation, though it is still evolving. France through the efforts of President Nicolas Sarkozy has amended the constitution to provide for 11 expatriate MPs for the 2011 elections. It will be the first time that expatriate French would have the opportunity to choose their own MPs to represent them in the French Lower House.
Portugal allows expatriates to vote by post for MPs in two “emigration constituencies” (“Europe” and “outside Europe”), electing a total of four of the 230 MPS.
A government proposal in 1980 sought to increase the number of emigration constituencies to three (Portuguese-speaking countries, Europe, rest of the world), each with three MPs, but was not debated in parliament. It was revived recently and has substantial backing within the Council of Portuguese Communities.
However, there are several challenges if this idea is to become reality. Firstly, there is a very large number of the Zimbabwean expatriate community that is undocumented or have false documents. In the UK there are lots of Zimbabweans who have all types of passports, ranging from Malawian to Portuguese.
Some have none at all, neither do they have national ID cards. These categories might not feel secure to be involved because of the fear of being found out mainly by the immigration authorities.
In addition there are thousands who have sought asylum but their cases have not been finalised. Their documents will be in the hands of the immigration authorities.
This poses the first great hurdle of confirming and verifying the exact number of Zimbabweans abroad in certain countries and determining their eligibility to vote or participate in the electoral process.
Secondly the issue of who would be tasked with the mandate to verify and register these citizens has to be addressed.
This process is necessary to come up with a voters’ roll, which will also determine the number of seats to be allocated to individual geographic locations.
If the reform process in Zimbabwe had moved with speed and we had an impartial embassy staff, they would have been the ideal persons to deal with this problem. However the present institutions are still heavily skewed towards Zanu PF that most citizens would not trust them to come up with a credible document.
Then there is the issue of those who have acquired foreign citizenship. Currently Zimbabwean law forbids dual citizenship. This law was promulgated mainly to segment a certain electoral constituency which Zanu PF felt would have voted for the MDC.
At its height there were more than 750 000 farm workers in Zimbabwe and more than 4 000 white farmers. Trends in the 2000 referendum show they were more likely to vote for MDC than Zanu PF.
A good number of these, and those who have attained new status in their current host countries, have not gone through the process of renouncing one of the citizenships they hold which the law requires. It is hoped however that dual citizenship will be returned in the new constitution thereby allowing them to participate in future elections.
In addition, Zimbabwean communities abroad are not well known for being very organised themselves. Whereas there is a plethora of organisations that represent certain Zimbabwean interests, we lack unifying bodies that would make policy lobbying coherent and consistent.
Sanderson Makombe can be contacted at email@example.com.
By Sanderson Makombe