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In spite of President Thabo Mbeki's continuing mediation efforts, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has gazetted major constitutional amendments aimed at securing his party an easy victory in 2008's general elections.
The move has infuriated the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has been banking on Mbeki's mediation to achieve a level playing field for the elections.
"By going ahead to unilaterally implement changes on issues subject to the mediation effort, Mugabe has not only shown his disdain for President Mbeki, he has in fact denigrated SADC as a whole," said Nelson Chamisa, the spokesperson for the main faction of the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
Leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) mandated Mbeki to mediate in Zimbabwe and ensure conditions for free and fair elections at an extraordinary summit called in March.
The Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment Bill (No 18), gazetted late on Friday, seeks to increase the size of parliament from 150 members to 210. It is believed that the expansion would be achieved by splitting rural constituencies, Mugabe's strong support bases, to ensure that he will achieve an easy victory.
The recently introduced senate will have its seats increased from 60 to 84, of which about 30 will be Mugabe's own direct or indirect appointees. This means that parliamentary elections due to have been held in 2010 will be brought forward to coincide with presidential elections in 2008.
The decision to cut the life of the current parliament by two years came after Mugabe faced serious internal resistance from his own party on a plan to extend his term.
Another major change is the abolition of the requirement to hold a presidential election within 90 days of the death of an incumbent president or of his leaving office for any other reason. The new amendment bill will empower parliament and the senate to elect a new president at a single seating until the next election is held.
Zanu-PF insiders say this amendment is intended to facilitate any designs by Mugabe to appoint a successor without facing a popular presidential election if he decides to leave office.
Apparently, Mugabe has been trying to mollify internal dissidents opposed to his decision to stand as Zanu-PF's candidate in 2008 by promising them that he would step down once he has won next year's elections.
Included in the amendment bill are proposals to create a human rights commission and the renaming of the office of the ombudsman to that of public protector.
Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, the minister of information and publicity, said the gazetted amendment bill had no relation to Mbeki's mediation efforts. He told state media that Mbeki's initiative should not cloud Zimbabwe's state programmes.
But the clearest indication that Mbeki's mediation efforts could be stillborn came from Didymus Mutasa, the minister of state security, who said the Zimbabwean government had accepted the SADC resolution mandating Mbeki as mediator simply because it did not want to be discourteous to African leaders.
Mbeki's mediation effort ran into serious problems when Mugabe's representatives, Patrick Chinamasa and Nicholas Goche, the ministers of justice and labour respectively, did not turn up for the Mbeki-brokered direct talks with MDC representatives in Pretoria last week.
Frantic last-minute efforts by South African officials, led by Sydney Mufamadi, South Africa's minister of local government, to get Chinamasa and Goche to attend last week's planned direct talks failed.
Welshman Ncube and Tendai Biti, the two representatives of the divided MDC, ended up leaving Pretoria empty-handed.
Zimbabwean civic society and the MDC want any constitutional agenda to be determined through an all-inclusive process instead of being dictated to by Zanu-PF.
That now seems most unlikely and as respected political scientist John Makumbe has already said, "only the greatest optimist believes Mbeki's softly, softly intervention will yield results".
Chamisa said what was now needed was a robust response from the SADC to ensure that Mugabe's excesses are curbed. - Foreign Service