HARARE – The High Court will tomorrow rule on legal challenges to a proposed June election timetable, a vote seen as a test of democracy five years after an election dispute triggered widespread bloodshed.
Judge President George Chiweshe — who was the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chairperson in the controversial 2008 vote — is presiding over the electoral dispute between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Mugabe on March 22 filed an urgent chamber application seeking to be excused from complying with a court order that forces him to proclaim dates for three Matabeleland by-elections by end of March, arguing it would be expensive for the cash-strapped government to stage the three ballots three months ahead of a general election which he told the court must be held by June 29.
But Mugabe’s coalition partner and MDC candidate Tsvangirai says the June poll date was not feasible. He filed an application in the High Court last Thursday requesting that he be included in the matter as the fourth respondent together with three former legislators Abednico Bhebhe, Njabuliso Mguni and Norman Mpofu, who want their vacant constituencies filled through by-elections in their constituencies.
The legal challenge by the PM delayed the case to April 3.
Earlier last Thursday, deputy Attorney General Prince Machaya — who represented President Mugabe — had sought to have the matter stood down to Friday afternoon but agreed that the matter be postponed to Wednesday after he was served with Tsvangirai’s legal challenge.
Both politicians have promised to abide by the court’s final word.
Tsvangirai, who has bemoaned the slow pace in implementation of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) ahead of the poll owing to what he terms “Zanu PF’s intransigence”, argues that Mugabe’s court action was tantamount to unilaterally proclaiming election dates without consulting him as PM in blatant contravention of the GPA.
“It came as a surprise for me that the applicant (Mugabe) has neither conferred nor consulted me,” Tsvangirai’s attorney Chris Mhike said in court papers.
“I verily believe that it is my duty to illuminate the impossibility of the applicant’s proposed timelines, which timeline he bases his application.
“In terms of the current constitutional dispensation, the applicant (Mugabe), in the main matter, has to consult me in my official capacity before he makes a proclamation relating to the dissolution of Parliament.”
Mugabe had in his urgent chamber application advised that he will dissolve Parliament and call for harmonised elections on or before June 29, 2013.
Mugabe said following the “Yes” vote in the March 16 constitutional referendum, Parliament is expected to finish passing the new constitution by May 8 after which a proclamation on general elections will be gazetted immediately followed by a proclamation for harmonised elections.
“In terms of the Constitution, the life of parliament terminates on the June 29, 2013 by which date harmonised elections must be held in the country,” Mugabe argues.
But Tsvangirai told the court that from his “understanding and personal knowledge of the affairs” of the country, it is unlikely that elections will be held on or before June 29, 2013.
The ruling is expected to address a list of challenges to the poll timetable, but the final ruling is expected come immediately.
The March 31 deadline was set by Justice Chiweshe in October last year at the insistence of Mugabe, who had said he would call for general elections by end of March.
But the veteran ruler, 89, plagued by health problems and old age, wants elections when he can still sustain a gruelling campaigning schedule, analysts say.
The fact that the dispute is being played out by lawyers not unilateral action by Mugabe, has already helped repair the image of southern Africa’s recovering economy.
But tomorrow’s ruling will be the real test of whether Zimbabweans trust their judiciary and whether supporters of rival candidates accept the result quietly in a nation synonymous with melodrama by politicians.
Meanwhile, Welshman Ncube, leader of the smaller ruling MDC by legislative representation, has written to regional bloc Sadc stating that the June poll timetable that Mugabe wants was not feasible.
Many ordinary Zimbabweans insist they will not allow a repeat of the violence that killed more than 200 people and displaced another 200 000 following a dispute over the last election in 2008, and want a peaceful poll after fundamental reforms.
Western donors are closely watching the unfolding electoral process in the wake of a relatively peaceful referendum on March 16, in a resource-rich country they see as vital to future engagement.
Neighbouring African states are also keeping a careful eye on proceedings after they were hit by the knock-on effects when millions of Zimbabweans fled in droves into exile as political and economic refugees following violent and disputed elections in 2008.
Zimbabwe’s economy has yet to recover fully from the pummeling it took after the vote violence that capped a decade of economic meltdown.
In the High Court’s hearing tomorrow, Justice Chiweshe had deferred the matter to enable the parties to file responses and heads of arguments. – Gift Phiri, Political Editor