DO MPs play any significant role in the development of their constituencies or are they mere political figureheads?
This question would, in a normal political setting, be rhetorical, but the failure to hold by-elections in constituencies robbed of representation by death or because members were fired has made it relevant.
Currently there are nine vacant seats and Justice George Chiweshe, chairman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the body that is mandated to run elections, said in August they had no money for by-elections. This means these constituencies may wait until the next elections, after the constitution-making process, before they get representation.
To make matters worse, vacant constituencies would not benefit anytime soon from the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) that will become operational in January. An MP will chair a committee that will administer the fund.
It is expected that the MP for a constituency would make assessments on developmental needs and then apply for the funds and then implement the projects.
The CDF has an allocation of US$8 million to cater for the 210 constituencies and the amounts given would depend on the needs of each area.
Projects which are likely to be implemented under the fund include sinking of boreholes to improve water supply and sanitation, repairing of schools and setting up nutrition gardens.
But the projects should not interfere with the operations of local authorities.
What this means is that the six constituencies whose MPs died and the three parliamentary seats where MDC-M legislators were fired would literally be left in the cold as they would not be able to benefit from this fund no matter how dire their needs may be.
MPs who have died are John Nyamande (MDC-T) for Makoni Central, Cornelius Dube (MDC-T) for Emakhandeni–Entumbane, Charles Pemhenayi (Zanu PF) for Mutare North, Cletus Mabharanga (Zanu PF) for Guruve North, Ephrem Mushoriwa (Zanu PF) for Gokwe-Gumunyu and Elliot Manyika (Zanu PF) for Bindura North.
Three other MPs, namely Abednico Bhebhe (Nkayi South), Norman Mpofu (Bulilima East) and Njabuliso Mguni (Lupane East) who won on the MDC-M ticket, were unseated in July this year.
According to Section 39 of the Electoral Act, the Speaker or the President of the Senate is supposed to notify the President as soon as possible after he/she becomes aware of a vacancy.
The president then publishes a notice in the Government Gazette within 14 days after he has been notified of the vacancy ordering a new election to fill the seat.
Nomination court of candidates will sit not less than 14 days or more than 21 days after the publication of the proclamation. An election date will then be set not less than 28 days and not more than 50 days after the nomination of candidates.
Most of the vacant constituencies are in rural areas which are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries of CDF given that the district councils which should undertake developmental projects are currently incapacitated.
“If we are serious about development at the constituency level, then we should be ashamed by what has been happening since the first death of an MP immediately after the election last year,” said a political science lecturer. “It may be a case of a very weak electorate which is being trampled on by a carnivorous central government which is taking advantage of the loopholes in our democracy and in my humble opinion, it is the constituencies which will suffer.”
Another political commentator who is also the director for the Centre for Community Development, Phillip Pasirayi, said the continued lack of representation in the nine constituencies was a clear sign of how overweening the state had become at the expense of the populace.
“From a civic society point of view, we are saying we should challenge government so that elections are held,” said Pasirayi. “A delay in holding elections is a clear sign of denying the people of their suffrage.”
Pasirayi said the problem was that of “negotiated debates” where everything was left to the three negotiating parties, Zanu PF, MDC-T and MDC-M, which went against the doctrine of the separation of power.
Analysts feel that one of the problems with the political set-up in the country is that a shadow MP or even minister does not have much of a role to play and they usually become visible only during campaigning.
Bhebhe, the former MP for Nkayi South, said while he has been fired by his party, thus denying his constituency of representation, he has continued with the programmes he had initiated.
“There are a number of programmes which I have continued to undertake in the constituency because I believe that it was the people who gave me the mandate to work with them,” said Bhebhe.
“As far as I am concerned, I should continue working with the people and as you may be aware we have sunk a borehole among other developmental projects I have undertaken.”
While things may be slightly better for the Nkayi South constituency because Bhebhe may still be interested in participating in an election, the same cannot be said about the other eight.
It may be a case of projects dying with their implementers as those interested in contesting elections may not be coming in the open as they are not aware of when the elections would be held.
This has led some to say that the country should adopt other forms of representation which will take into account the problems faced at the moment.
Suggestions were made for Zimbabwe to move from the first-past-the post (winner takes all) type of election and adopt proportional representation where an MP who dies or is dismissed is replaced by someone from the same party without going for election.
Under proportional representation, a party prepares a list and they are allocated seats on the basis of how the party performed. If, for example, a party wins 50% of the vote in an election, they would get half the number of available seats until the next election.
Should an MP die, then his/her party would appoint another one without going for election which makes it cheaper than having an election each time there is a death or dismissal.
However, there are problems which are also associated with this system as the preparation of a list of MPs may be subject to manipulation and patronage as preferred political actors may be pushed on top even if they did not have grassroots support.
A political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe who asked for anonymity said when Finance minister Tendai Biti announced the introduction of the CDF, it exposed those responsible for administering elections for sleeping on duty.
“There may be many problems with the running of the elections as was said by ZEC, when they said they did not have the funds to hold elections but the importance of the elections should take precedence over other issues,” he said.
“What is even more worrying is that the three parties are hushed when it comes to constituencies which have been affected yet they account for a significant fraction of the entire lower House.”