STATE-RUN Herald columnist Nathaniel Manheru — widely understood to be President Robert Mugabe’s spokesman George Charamba — last Saturday gave readers an insight into his boss’ thinking following the Supreme Court ruling ordering the president to set a date for by-elections by August 30.
In his column titled Zanu PF: When defeat gets so sweet, Manheru said this was “a legal battle where Mugabe the president loses to Mugabe (the) leader of a political party seeking an early electoral end” in the Government of National Unity (GNU), which he describes as a “political charade”.
This clearly reflected the interpretation of the ruling the Zimbabwe Independent got from senior Zanu PF officials loyal to Mugabe. Although Mugabe lost the case, he emerged the winner insofar as the judgement gives him a lifeline to resuscitate his plans for general elections this year which were thwarted by Sadc leaders at their extraordinary summit in Luanda, Angola, recently.
While some observers seem to think Mugabe lost the matter, the reality is he lost as president of the country who has a constitutional obligation to proclaim election dates, in this case by-elections, but won as Zanu PF leader.
Mugabe’s lawyer Advocate Ray Goba was quick to say he expected his client to comply with the order.
“The highest court has ruled and so we expect that the order would be complied with,” he said.
The indirect Mugabe victory may however be hollow as it has been stated, mainly by the MDC led by Professor Welshman Ncube, (see Qhubani Moyo’s opinion-editorial piece on page 15), the moratorium on by-elections is still valid since Sadc leaders and principals extended it for the duration of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) and the inclusive government in Maputo in November 2009 after the initial one year freeze had expired.
So despite the Supreme Court ruling, GPA parties, Zanu PF and the two MDC formations, are still bound by their own agreement not to contest each other even if by-elections are held. Short of violating or pulling out of the GPA, Zanu PF might not be able to benefit anything politically valuable from the ruling.
Mugabe had appealed a 2011 High Court order calling on him to proclaim by-election dates for constituencies left vacant following the expulsion of Abednico Bhebhe, Njabuliso Mguni and Norman Mpofu from Ncube’s MDC.
While there is consensus the ruling was legally sound condemning Mugabe to a rare court defeat, the veteran leader has ironically come out the winner as the judgement gave him a lifeline to revive his call for elections this year which had been effectively blocked by Sadc.
Mugabe had been demanding elections this year, with or without reforms, including a new constitution.
Showing why Mugabe might be happy with the ruling, Manheru said the court ruling had implications “well beyond the three by-elections to suggest many possibilities, all of them favourable to Zanu PF”.
“More dramatically and boldly, the president may use this judgement to dissolve parliament and get the country to move post-haste to harmonised elections,” he wrote, revealing his and Zanu PF’s excitement at the opportunities provided by the judgment.
The coalition government did not call for any by-elections since its formation after the three parties had inserted a moratorium in the GPA preventing them from contesting against each other for the first 12 months of the inclusive government’s lifespan.
However, the moratorium was further extended in Maputo to cover the duration of the GPA — something which ruins whatever designs Mugabe had in mind to revive his crumbling elections plans.
Judging by the official Prime Minister’s Newsletter, the MDC-T seemed to be holding the wrong end of the stick and unaware of the wider implications of the ruling which it simplistically hailed as one of those rare episodes where “Zimbabweans must celebrate the mere fact that for the first time in its history, the Supreme Court went against the true intentions of Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF”.
While conceding the court decision is legally sound and by-elections are overdue, University of Kent law lecturer Dr Alex Magaisa however said the situation could be used by Zanu PF to test the strength of its popular support and its electoral machinery ahead of general elections like it did with the February 2000 constitutional referendum whose “No” vote effectively awakened the party to the real prospect of looming electoral defeat ahead of the June 2000 election”.
“It is generally agreed that the ‘No’ vote allowed Zanu PF to re-strategise and prevent what seemed to be sure defeat in the 2000 parliamentary elections,” Magaisa said.
He also said the ruling might result in a sheer waste of resources, given the forthcoming constitutional referendum and general elections.
“The imminence of the general election, the resource limitations and the potential instability that comes with elections all combine to make a cocktail of challenges that arise on account of this judgment,” Magaisa said.
“But we should not forget the GPA was a product of political negotiation and if by-elections are considered undesirable in the run-up to the next general elections, the politicians have to, and can find, a way of dealing with this situation.”
University of Zimbabwe law lecturer Professor Lovemore Madhuku concurred the judgement was legally sound but suggested its effect should have been suspended. “The best thing would have been to suspend the effect of the ruling even for 12 months to allow the president time to find money to hold general elections,” he said.
MDC secretary-general Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga said there was “absolutely no sense” in having by-elections now, only to have general elections soon after.
Zanu PF strategist and senior politburo member Jonathan Moyo, who has been spearheading calls for general and by-elections this year, told state television, ZBC on Monday the country should after the ruling just hold general elections.
“If all we have is the US$100 million, surely let us use it to hold the one that matters,” Moyo said in reference to general elections.
Attorney Jonathan Samkange dismissed Finance minister Tendai Biti’s argument that there was no money to fund by-elections, saying he would have to “look for it”.
Manheru further said: “Until this court decision, the whole debate has evolved as if only GPA principals watched by Sadc through its facilitator have been the only factors at play.”
The court decision may just have given Mugabe a way around Sadc resolutions deemed inconvenient by Zanu PF pressing for general elections this year without reforms — effectively pulling the rug from under the MDC parties’ feet but the moratorium on by-elections might as well foil the president’s plans once again.