‘Parly whipping system could stifle debate’

ZIMBABWEAN MPs are powerless as they cannot challenge cabinet on important issues, reducing their role to that of a rubber-stamp and legitimising executive decisions.

This is a throwback to the doctrine of separation of powers, which supposes the independence of the three arms of the state –– the executive (cabinet), legislature (parliament) and judiciary –– and also provides for checks and balances in order to prevent abuse of power.
Last week the executive whipped members of the House of Assembly into passing the Finance Bill, which gives effect to the 2011 national budget, showing that in Zimbabwe the doctrine of separation of powers was only abstract.
Members of the House of Assembly from both MDC-T and Zanu PF had vowed to block the passing of the Bill arguing that resources allocated to education, for example, were not enough. They were also demanding monthly salaries of US$3 000 and compensation for the years cut short if elections are held in 2011 instead of 2013. These members were outrightly dismissed by the public as showing mercenary attitude as focus was on what they termed “welfare issues” but using inadequate resource allocation as a smoke screen.
Despite the public chastisement, it appeared that the MPs would stick to their resolution to block the Bill until threats of expulsion by the executive, through Vice-President Joice Mujuru and Finance minister Tendai Biti, moments before the Bill sailed through without debate.
Mujuru and Biti’s intervention was a game changer, showing that while there is talk of separation of powers, there was subordination of one pillar of the state on the other.
Blocking the passage of the Bill, which would have been a first in the history of independent Zimbabwe, would have been a clear vote of no confidence in the executive which had collectively contributed and approved the 2011 budget, hence the whipping, caucusing, threats and promises.
The tug of war between the executive on the one hand and the MPs on the other was a losing battle for the legislators who, according to the political system in the country, can be fired by the executive.
Munyardzai Gwisai then representing Highfield, was fired by the MDC in 2003; the MDC-M kicked out of parliament three members of the lower house, Abedinico Bhebhe (Nkayi South), Njabuliso Mguni (Lupane East) and Norman Mpofu (Bulilima West) for undermining the party’s authority, thus the MPs knew what would happen to them if they defied their parties’ position.
The current constitution favours political parties as it requires a simple note by the party leader to the speaker announcing the dismissal from the house and there is no hearing or recourse as the seat is declared vacant. With everything, in terms of the constitution stacked against them, the lawmakers had to acquiesce to the party position, to save their political lives, even if passing the contentious Bill went against their conscience or expectations of their constituencies.
It was a power game which the executive triumphed over the legislature. The judiciary appears the only arm which could not be easily beaten into submission as the constitution goes a long way in protecting it and ensuring the separation of powers with the executive.
Analysts blamed the dim boundary lines between two of the arms of the state, executive and legislature, on the hybrid nature of the governance system.
Political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe, Eldred Masunungure, said the whipping of the members of the House of Assembly into line was clearly the result of the blending of the parliamentary and the presidential systems of governance.
The parliamentary system of government allows the party (or a coalition of parties) with the largest representation in parliament (legislature) to form a government and usually the leader becomes the prime minister. On the other hand, a presidential system allows an executive branch presiding over the state separately from the legislature. In a presidential (congressional in the USA) system, the executive is not accountable to the legislature and in normal circumstances cannot dismiss it.
“In a normal situation, the executive would have persuaded and not coerced the parliamentarians,” said Masunungure. “The executive displayed its muscle and it showed that the legislature is subservient.”
The nature of the system, if not checked, could kill debate in parliament, analysts added.
Admire Rubaya, an administrator at the Parliamentary Monitoring Trust of Zimbabwe, said the whipping system could “stifle debate as one cannot stand up for issues against the party”.
“However, at the same time it has to be acknowledged that a party may have its own ideologies and policies which have to be implemented,” said Rubaya who is also a legal practitioner. “These two are conflicting and thus it has to be balanced between the party line and or what the members of parliament would have been mandated by the people.”
Rubaya said it was important to ask if the “party position” was in line with the people’s expectations as there are chances that policies pushed in parliament may not be dipped in popular sentiment.
In Zimbabwe, MPs do not have the luxury of going against a party position because of the consequences and they are kept in line by the whip or through caucus meetings. A caucus meeting is when members of the same party meet to decide on candidates or policies and what usually happens is that a system of democratic centralism, where after a decision is reached, no member is allowed to go against it, is adopted.
The obnoxious mix of democratic centralism and the whipping system could prove unbearable as it kills debate which informs the policy process even on issues where the lawmakers may be more knowledgeable than the executive.
For John Makamure, the executive director of the Southern Africa Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST), the whipping system was bad for democracy as members of the House of Assembly’s refusal to pass the Bill was informed by serious discussions which had been undertaken through the 19 portfolio committees.
“Each of the 19 portfolio committees was given an expert to make submissions,” said the SAPST boss. “They were well-informed, reasoned and well thought out recommendations which were made.”
Both Masunungure and Makamure agreed that the current constitution-making process was an opportunity to correct the problems presented by the hybrid system that the country was using.
Masunungure said the whipping of the parliamentarians was the necessary “raw materials” for deciding a governmental system that would further define separation of powers and work for the general good of the country.

 

Leonard Makombe

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