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Constitutionalism versus Populism

Opinion & Analysis
The late Robert Mugabe was a charismatic leader, articulate and gifted with a natural flair of the English language

The recent Supreme Court judgement in MDC and Others vs Elias Mashavira and Others SC 56/20 is a litmus test for constitutional democracy to all the MDC parties in their various forms. Article 3.1 of The Movement for Democratic Change constitution states that the party’s core values are transparency, equality, solidarity, justice, liberty, humble and obedient leadership and accountability. It is now evident that all the MDC parties are invariably struggling to embrace constitutional democracy and are leaving the party’s core values for mere window dressing. But how did the parties arrive at this unenviable position?

The late Robert Mugabe was a charismatic leader, articulate and gifted with a natural flair of the English language. Zimbabweans were charmed by his arresting speeches and most of his loyal supporters viewed him as a semi-god. They ring-fenced Mugabe and treated anyone who criticised him or questioned him as a sell-out, mutengesi, an enemy to be beaten or killed. Mugabe enforced this model of leadership.

Thus, even though Zanu PF had a very elaborate constitution, the constitution was just a façade, only useful and effective when launching Zanu PF manifestos and was an ever present manual when holding meetings with donors and members of the international community. Mugabe became the de facto constitution of Zanu PF and he could easily violate the party or national constitution. Mugabe’s continued leadership was primarily based on populism and his heavy handedness in contrast to constitutional dictates. The trend of a heavy handed and suppressive leadership style continues to this day through Mnangagwa and General Chiwenga.

The leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai in the MDC initially offered hope for a new transparent, equitable and democratic society in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai’s rise to popularity was largely derived from an oppressed society yearning for freedom, economic development, jobs and constitutional democracy. However, towards the end of the Tsvangirai era he was ring-fenced too. The party was riven with factionalism and violence. Constitutional amendments were often unprocedural and more vice presidents were appointed by Tsvangirai thereby contravening constitutional dictates.

Mugabe’s preferred leadership style over constitutional leadership continues in Zanu PF to this day. This is a leadership style so intolerant to any form of criticism towards the leader and he or she cannot be held accountable. When the leader makes a mistake he or she cannot be corrected. Their followers see no evil and hear no evil. Ironically the MDC, a ‘democratic’ party predicated on transparent, humble, obedient, accountable and democratic leadership seems now copying Zanu PF’s unorthodox and autocratic leadership style.

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