Maputo — The Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, on Wednesday launched a nationwide public debate on amendments to the country’s constitution, drawn up over the past two years by an Assembly ad-hoc commission.
The initiative to amend the constitution came from the parliamentary group of the ruling Frelimo Party. However, the ad-hoc commission was boycotted by the main opposition party, the former rebel movement Renamo.
Renamo refused to take its seats on the commissions, refused to submit any proposals, and was also absent from the Wednesday ceremony.
The amendments proposed by Frelimo do not seek to change the country’s political or economic system in any significant way. In some quarters, it had been feared that Frelimo would use the constitutional amendments as a means of securing a third term of office for President Armando Guebuza. But there is no such proposal among the draft amendments, which maintain the current system whereby the President of the Republic may only be elected to two consecutive five year terms of office.
All Frelimo’s proposed amendments are fairly minor. Perhaps the most significant is that reference to “traditional authorities” has been replaced by the much broader term “community authorities”.
The amendment commits the Mozambican state to “recognizing and valuing community authorities”, which are defined as “traditional chiefs, village or neighbourhood secretaries, and other leaders legitimized as such by their respective communities”.
Speaking at the Wednesday event, the chairperson of the ad-hoc commission, Eduardo Mulembue, said the term “traditional authority” did not reflect Mozambican reality.
“Mozambican society is, by its nature, diversified”, he said, “and knows various types and levels of community authorities, whose power is exercised in accordance with customary values and norms”.
He admitted that, in most cases, traditional authority follows a hereditary principle – but not always. There were cases where community leadership was decided on the basis of leadership capacity, fitness for office, and acceptance by the local population.
Mulembue said the amendment will end the practice of discriminating in favour of traditional chiefs at the expense of other forms of community authority.
Mulembue stressed that the amendments will “establish, one and for all, within the constitution, the period within which elections must take place”. After the amended constitution takes effect, presidential and parliamentary elections, municipal elections and elections for provincial assemblies, must all take place in the first fortnight of October.
Mulembue said this was because the first fortnight of October is generally the driest period of the year. Most roads would therefore be passable, allowing polling stations to open even in the most remote parts of the Mozambican countryside.
The amendments also reinstate two Frelimo positions on the elections, which the party withdrew from the electoral laws passed in December, as a concession to Renamo (Renamo ignored all concessions and voted against the laws anyway).
One is that all presidential candidates must deposit a sum of money, to be fixed in a future law. This is intended to deter joke candidates. This clause existed during the 2009 elections, when the deposit was fixed at 100,000 meticais (about 3,370 US dollars), only returnable to the winning candidate. Renamo claimed that this was undemocratic and even unconstitutional, and Frelimo agreed to drop it from the amended laws.
So there will be no deposit required from candidates in the 2014 presidential election. But if, as seems certain, the constitutional amendments are passed, deposits will become a fixed feature of future presidential elections.
The amendments also state that elections among Mozambicans in the diaspora will be held on a date before the elections inside Mozambique. This is because elections in Mozambique are held on a weekday, which is declared a public holiday. But the date is not a holiday in the countries where Mozambican emigrants live, and many of them are unable to take time off work to go to the few polling stations (usually in embassies or consulates) to cast their votes.
Holding elections in the diaspora at the weekend prior to the vote inside Mozambique should encourage a higher turnout. Renamo successfully opposed this change to the electoral law, but its boycott of the ad-hoc commission meant it could not oppose it as a constitutional amendment.
Mulembue also stressed that the amendments “strengthen guarantees of access to the courts and to justice”. They declare that “the state shall uphold speedy justice for all citizens and legally recognised bodies”, and that “the administration of justice shall be exercised with professionalism, responsibility, integrity, objectivity and impartiality”.
The Constitutional Council, the highest body in matters of constitutional and electoral law, is renamed the Constitutional Court, and is placed at the top of the judicial hierarchy. The amendments make it possible to appeal from the Supreme Court to the Constitutional Court, against decisions which the plaintiffs believe violate the constitution.
It will become slightly easier for ordinary citizens to use the Constitutional Court. Currently a petition to have the Constitutional Council declare any laws or normative acts of the state unconstitutional requires 2,000 signatures. The amendments lower this requirement to 1,000 signatures.
It was possible for institutions and individual to submit proposed constitutional amendments in writing – but very few did so. Nonetheless, the ad-hoc commission has included everything received as footnotes to the relevant articles.
There are proposals from two political parties – namely the second parliamentary opposition force, the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) and the tiny Union of Mozambican Democrats (UDM) – from two NGOs, and from two well-known individuals, Frelimo intellectual Sergio Vieira, and prominent lawyer Simeao Cuamba.
Most of these written submissions do not challenge the main political foundations of the constitution. The exceptions are calls from the UDM for Mozambique to adopt a federal system, and to become “a religious state”.
Mulembue said that the draft amendments will now be debated publicly throughout the country from February to April. The torrential rains and flooding that have affected parts of the country, notably the southern province of Gaza, called the original timetable for the debate into question, and so it has been rearranged.
Initially, the debate will only occur in the provinces least affected by flooding (Maputo province and city and Inhambane in the south, and Cabo Delgado, Nampula and Niassa in the north).
Mulembue hoped that Gaza and the four central provinces (Zambezia, Sofala, Manica and Tete) could hold the debate in late March or early April, “but always taking into consideration the real situation on the ground, to allow the greatest inclusion and popular participation”.
The amendments will be reworked in light of the debate and deposited in the Assembly in November 2013. This would allow them to be voted on in December 2013, or at the first Assembly sitting of 2014. They will not take effect until after the 2014 general elections.