Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Heckling scene at Parliament strengthens Mugabe’s ‘democratic’ credentials

Posted by CM on August 27, 2008

Mugabe’s heckling by MDC MPs during his opening speech at Parliament yesterday has got some people beside themselves with excitement.

All the various publications that carried it essentially recycled the same story, but each trying to out-compete all the others with the superlatives used.

“Howls of derision echo through Zim Parliament” screamed the Mail and Guardian.

“Robert Mugabe humiliated as Zimbabwe parliament opens,” joyfully cried the UK Daily Telegraph. Opinionist-masquerading-as-journalist Peta Thornycroft was so delighted she guessed, ‘This was probably the first time that Mr Mugabe, who is shielded from public criticism, has ever faced an openly hostile audience.’

Many other reports on the heckling wondered if it, together with the MDC’s majority and the first-ever election of an opposition MP as Speaker, heralded a fundamental shift in Zimbabwe’s power relations.

That could very well be the case, and would be true in a ‘normal’ democracy, but this cannot at all be taken for granted in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has been counted out countless times before and has always managed to come back for another fight; stronger, more determined, uncompromising and ruthless.

As soon as the opening was held,  parliament went on recess until October, delaying the answers to exactly what the changes will mean to the conduct of parliamentary business, and whether any of those changes will filter down to making any difference to “the man on the street.”

I have yet to see any photos of Mugabe’s reaction during the heckling when he was delivering his speech. It would be entirely natural for him to be unsettled at such heckling, but I would be surprised if he really took it hard, as if he were surprised that a significant proportion of Zimbabweans cannot stand him. Now that he seems well on his way to achieving his overall aim of staying on in power for five more years, I suspect he will simply adjust to the heckling on the very few occasions on which he has to address parliament. As long as he remains president, I believe tough old Mugabe will simply get used to taking occasional heckling, at what has mostly been a window-dressing, ceremonial parliament anyway, as the small price he must pay for holding on to power.

The police and the whole Mugabe authority seemed really petty to chase down and arrest several MDC parliamentarians for one or another ‘offence’ just before and and after the session of parliament. MDC MPs are not necessarily any more paragons of virtue than the rest of us, so it would not be surprising if a few did have police ‘cases to answer.’ But the manner and timing of their questioning and/or arrests was really poor, even by the low standards of the Mugabe regime.

But interestingly, if Mugabe can prevent his goons from their typical over-zealousness, he could turn the MDC presence in parliament, heckling and all, to his favour. It is unprecedented for an African president to ‘accept’ the ‘humiliation’ of being heckled like he was. He did not call out the army and air force to bomb the opposition benches as might be expected of a man who has been painted as the world’s most blood-thirsty ogre. Instead he ploughed through the heckling to finish his speech.

As long as he retains the biggest price of being the supreme ruler, he could actually say to the world: ‘You see, we have a fully functioning democracy in Zimbabwe, in which I can be heckled in parliament in a way that in many other countries would result in many deaths.’

It is true that many things will be different with the several changes Mugabe has reluctantly had to accept. But the sly old fox is far from finished. For now he still retains all the instruments of real power, regardless of how much singing and hurling of insults opposition MPs engage in during his speeches.

Let’s wait and see what develops in the coming weeks and months.

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