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Comment: Strong Parliament Good for Democracy

EVENTS surrounding the debate on the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) Amendment Bill which was passed in the House of Assembly on Wednesday dramatically highlighted an important but often forgotten point: that a strong parliament is essential for democracy.

The Bill came to the House of Assembly after being cleared by cabinet and amid an understanding between Zanu PF and MDC ministers that in terms of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) a proposed statute cleared by the executive would not be opposed by any legislators of parties in the GPA. So the initial expectation by ministers — especially the Minister of Finance —in itself a democratic aberration, was that backbenchers would just rubberstamp the Bill.

However, for different political reasons MPs from both Zanu PF and the MDC were not prepared to do any such thing. Zanu PF did not want to vote for the Bill to a certain extent for party political reasons. They also wanted to protect Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono who was going to be left as a lame duck had the proposed legislation been passed in its original form.

An attack on Gono for some in Zanu PF is seen as an attack on the party. This is not surprising because Gono put a number of Zanu PF officials and MPs on the feeding trough before the inclusive government was formed. In a way he also kept Zanu PF afloat until its inevitable defeat in general elections last year after the economy collapsed.

Zanu PF MPs, indeed like their MDC counterparts, are beneficiaries of Gono’s patronage. They were given top-of-the-range cars and loans over the years, something which has left many with several vehicles. Ministers also got luxury cars from Gono. So Zanu PF MPs were always going to oppose the Bill primarily for patronage reasons.

Parliamentarians have a responsibility to articulate the political aspirations and opinions of their voters, not to protect their personal narrow and self-serving interests. But in this case what made it worse for the Minister of Finance was that the Bill on its own was authoritarian. It was easy for Zanu PF and even MDC MPs to oppose because it was manifestly draconian.

In its crude original form the Bill initially proposed that the governor of the central bank should not be the chair of the bank’s board. This was rejected by cabinet because it has no precedent anywhere in the civilised world. The Bill also wanted to ensure the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance is deployed to the RBZ board, a move which would have further compromised the autonomy of the central bank.

Most people want RBZ reforms. Besides they also want Gono out or a least reined-in, but frankly the problem is that the minister failed to even disguise his personal agenda in formulating the Bill and wanted to mobilise the whole of parliament to rally behind his self-serving crusade.

In the process the minister also wanted to give himself frightening powers which could easily be abused. If the original Bill had been approved by parliament the minister would have succeeded in reducing the central bank into a department of his ministry, something completely undesirable, especially at a time when the country is crying out for progressive institutional reform.

The country needs reforms to strengthen democratic processes and institutions, not individual politicians or officials.

Providentially, although mainly for self-serving reasons, MPs were alert  and they stopped the minister in his tracks. By default backbenchers achieved an important objective — to strengthen their hand and that of parliament. This in turn is important for the promotion of democracy.

A functional, dynamic and effective parliament is critical for democracy. A rubber-stamping House obviously does not qualify as a modern and democratic institution.

The biggest lesson to emerge out of this sordid business is that ministers, whether Zanu PF or MDC, must not entertain the notion that the GPA is the bible of politics in Zimbabwe and hence it must be slavishly obeyed even if some of its provisions are crudely undemocratic.

Ministers must also understand that backbenchers have a different role. Trying to railroad draconian laws through parliament should no longer be tolerated.

Parliament is exactly what representative democracy is all about. Bulldozing bad Bills through the House of Assembly is a negation of democracy and for that reason the minister should never have been allowed to set a wrong precedent in the inclusive government era.

While the formulation and implementation of laws is a prerogative of the executive, meaningful consultations must be carried out with parliament and members of the public. The notion that the public does not know anything about the law is obviously nonsense.

Parliament has to embody the will of the people in government and carry all their expectations that democracy will be truly responsive to their needs and help solve the most pressing problems that confront them in their daily lives. It must not be used as a platform to push elitist or personal agendas.

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