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Zimbabwe’s late pro-democracy icon Tsvangirai was ‘regrettably’ first to use notorious recall clause crafted by Mugabe

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By James Muonwa


ALTHOUGH his battle for democracy is etched in the country’s history, Zimbabwe’s opposition icon late Morgan Tsvangirai was regrettably the first politician to recall a fellow elected party official using a ‘notorious’ clause within the Constitution.

The then Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader on November 22, 2022 expelled Munyaradzi Gwisai, then MDC MP for Highfields, from the party. This was after the MDC national executive found him guilty of contravening the party’s Constitution.

Interestingly, late former Zanu PF president Robert Mugabe in 1989 introduced the infamous recall clause to deal with internecine strife within the ruling party.

Fast-forward to 35 years later, the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) led by Nelson Chamisa suffered decimation after self-styled interim secretary-general Sengezo Tshabangu removed scores of legislators and councillors riding on the notorious clause.

The Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN) in its latest position paper titled, “Recalls, Subsequent By-Elections, Lessons Learnt And Insights Into Democratic Processes In Zimbabwe” describes the recall clause as unprogressive.

“Recalls have had a negative impact on Zimbabwe’s electoral democratic processes and have led to the fragmentation rather than the intended consolidation and stability of political parties,” ZESN said.

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Zimbabweans have to blame Mugabe for the piece of legislation.

“From its genealogy, the recall clause was introduced through the 1989 constitutional amendment to deal with internal Zanu PF politics. The then leader of Zanu PF, Robert Gabriel Mugabe faced political competition from his party’s secretary general, Edgar Zivanai Tekere.

“Tekere was critical of Mugabe’s political plan to establish a one-party State. Consequently, Zanu PF expelled Tekere from the party in October 1988.

“Mugabe took the post as secretary general. However, Tekere retained his seat in Parliament much to the chagrin of Mugabe. This is because there was no legal provision to institute a recall.

“This triggered a constitutional amendment process to enact the recall clause at the behest of Mugabe. However, the recall was not eventually used on Tekere who formed a new party, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) and contested against Mugabe in the 1990 presidential election,” reads the dossier.

“Paradoxically, the first party to use it was the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under the leadership of Morgan Richard Tsvangirai to deal with internal party frictions.

“As enshrined in its Constitution, the MDC was founded as a social democratic party which believed in ‘an open democracy where national leadership should be accountable to the people through the devolution of power and decision-making to the provinces and local institutions and structures.’

“Munyaradzi Gwisai the then MDC MP for Highfields, was expelled from the party on 22 November 2002. The MDC national executive found Gwisai guilty of contravening the party’s constitution.”

However, Gwisai alleged that he was expelled over ideological differences as he preferred a radical socialist mode of governance. He became the first MP in post-colonial Zimbabwe to lose his seat after his party expelled him and notified the then Speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa, who declared the constituency vacant on December 3, 2002.

Thereafter, ZESN said, Welshman Ncube, who led an MDC splinter faction recalled MPs for working with the rival opposition MDC T party led by Tsvangirai in 2012.

Regrettably, Zimbabwe lost an opportunity to repeal the recall clause to strengthen representatives’ accountability toward citizens during the 2013 Constitution-making process. A party-driven recall process was retained.

“This was not surprising because the Constitution-making process was led by politicians from dominant political parties in Parliament. For the opposition MDC, the retention was meant to largely contain excesses of a competitive authoritarian State by precluding the real possibilities of solicited and opportunistic defections by elected officials.”

Following the controversial August 23-24, 2023 Zimbabwe has been in a recall crusade fronted by Tshabangu.

“Tshabangu’s actions were partly a result of simmering internal contradictions within the opposition but were quickly hijacked by Zanu PF and State elites in order to decimate and emasculate the popular opposition front, led by Chamisa.

“Tshabangu, a self-appointed secretary general of the CCC wrote a letter to the Speaker of Parliament, President of Senate and Minister of Local Government recalling 14 CCC members of the National Assembly (9 directly constituency MPs 5 women’s quota MPs and 1 youth quota MP), nine senators and 17 councillors from their positions arguing that they had ceased to be members of the CCC on October 3, 2023.

“As a result of Section 129 (1) (k) of the Constitution that bestows power on political parties, the seats were declared vacant and Mnangagwa proclaimed December 9, 2023, as the day for by-elections.

“The CCC then led by Chamisa challenged the recalls in court and lost. The CCC argued that Tshabangu was not a member of their political party but rather an impostor with no right or authority to recall anyone hence the recalls were illegal, null and void and of no force and effect.

“However, the court effectively accepted the recall letter despite the improbability that party members who had been elected on a party ticket just two months previously, some of whom had only just been sworn in, would have ceased to belong to the party,” further reads the position paper.

Further to this, on December 7, 2023, the High Court in Harare, granted  Tshabangu an order to expunge the names of recalled MPs from the ballot paper for the by-elections. Zimbabwe was left with a ‘choice-less election’ without the participation of the main opposition party led by Chamisa.

On December 9, 2023, ZANU PF won seven out of the nine parliamentary by-elections. The ruling party now had 184 seats (144 directly elected through first past the post 33 proportional representation for women and seven youth quota) out of 280 seats in the National Assembly. Zanu PF was now three seats away from having a two thirds majority in the National Assembly.

Consequently, six more constituency by-elections were held on February 3, 2024, following the recall of six more opposition MPs by Tshabangu.

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ZESN recommends that Zimbabwe take a more people-centred stance on recalls which allows more participation of the electorate, and not the party alone.

“Fundamental to the way forward is placing the citizens at the centre of representative democracy. The international versions of recall are informed by a citizens-centred rather than a party-centric process. All they differ in is the degree of cumbersome.

“Considering this risk, recall procedures should not be too easy to implement. The recall must be designed in such a way that it becomes a last resort option rather than the norm…A high threshold citizen-led recall process is more ideal for Zimbabwe.”

ZESN opined that this enables citizens to maintain the right of recall as a tool of direct democracy and a reinforcement of representative democracy in a context where politicians largely lack accountability and programmatic delivery.

However, the recall has to be regulated to avoid political manipulations consistent with semi-democratic States.

“Zimbabwe therefore needs to urgently consider a constitutional amendment that would give citizens and not political parties the power to recall failing politicians in a representative democracy without having to wait for five years.

“All elected representatives can face the prospect of recall including local authorities, MPs and the President. In States where power is centralised it is usually at the top level of representation that the citizens’ political frustration is highest given the lack of accountability and delivery. However, because of the authoritarian nature of the politics, political opponents would always be tempted to invoke the provisions of a recall,” said ZESN.

Consequently, a recall needs to be both difficult to exercise and to be a clear expression of the people.

However, the country must avoid blanket recall laws which will cause capture by Zanu PF as a dominant party state.

Hence practically given that Zimbabwe is still a semi-democratic State state and not a mature democracy high threshold conditions will be necessary.

It is, therefore, argued that Zimbabwe’s laws need to be reviewed to entitle the elected representatives to be led by the Constitution itself and citizens will not necessarily by their party position as is common in most mature democracies, ZESN submitted.

The electorate must remain drivers of the recall process.

“In the case of exceptional circumstances, it should only be the people of a concerned constituency that can recall an elected representative through a democratic, participatory and transparent high threshold citizen-initiated process, not the political party let alone dominant groups within a party that nominated this other candidate.

“Regulations should provide for recall origins; reasonable timelines or a regulated period for recalls; substantive grounds for recalls; petition thresholds; petition verification; a recall referendum; judicial review; the by-election and curbing repeated calls,” ZESN said.