Critics are accusing Zimbabwe's ruling party of seeking to undermine the judiciary after lawmakers late Tuesday approved constitutional amendments so the president can hand pick top judges.
The amendments, which await President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s signature to become law, allow him to choose judges for the Constitutional, Supreme and High Courts without the approval of legislators.
Long-time ruler Robert Mugabe had similar powers for years until they were stripped away in the constitution that was passed in 2013.
Dewa Mavhinga, head of Human Rights Watch in southern Africa, urged rights organizations in Zimbabwe to challenge the law in court or hold protests.
“It is a law that should not be allowed to see the light of day because it undermines the rule of law in Zimbabwe. (It) is an authoritarian law that undermines the principle of separation of powers because it puts excessive powers in the office of the president and strips and weakens the judiciary in the sense that it gives the president power to appoint senior judges without going to public interviews," Mavhinga said.
The amendments would also allow a sitting president to extend the age of retirement of the chief justice by five years. Zimbabwe’s sitting chief justice, Luke Malaba, turns 70 this month and was due to retire.
The amendments bill also extends - by 10 years - the quota of 60 women in the 350-person parliament. The quota was supposed to end with the current term in 2023.
Another change would give the president the right to appoint his two vice presidents, instead of the vice presidents being elected.
Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi – who is from the ruling ZANU-PF party – told reporters that he was happy about the constitutional amendments.
“What happened is very historic. What this means is we are now going to remove the contentious running mate clause that was badly drafted. So, it’s a very joyous occasion; it allows government and even political parties to start planning for the 2023 elections knowing fully well that the women’s quota is there. Our empowerment agenda is on course,” Ziyambi said.
Opposition leader Douglas Mwonzora was one of the chief drafters of the 2013 constitution. But some of members of his Movement for Democratic Change party voted in favor of the amendments which passed Tuesday.
“The majority of the women in the Senate did vote for the bill. Obviously, it is clear that they were voting for the women’s quota and the youths’ quota. It is not a typical bill in which a leader or leaders of a party would whip people. Because that basically means whipping people against their gender. But we remain fortified that the running mate clause must be reinstated. We also think that the clause relating to the judges has to be dealt with,” Mwonzora said.
Critics say Mnangagwa took advantage of lockdown regulations, which forbid protests, and introduced the constitutional amendments, which have been condemned on social media by main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance and its leader, Nelson Chamisa.