Does Zimbabwe Need a President?

Now that President Robert Mugabe has been sworn into a sixth term after an election widely viewed as illegitimate, what is the rest of the world going to do about it?

So far, the response has been slow or ineffective; the United Nations Security Council has managed to pass only watered-down condemnations of Mr. Mugabe’s electoral terror because of resistance from South Africa, China and Russia. And Tuesday, the African Union urged Mr. Mugabe to join in a power-sharing agreement — a government of national unity.

But a better idea may be for Zimbabwe’s elected officials to cut the 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe out altogether — by getting rid of the office of president.

At first glance that may appear difficult: the Zimbabwean regime is marked by an extremely powerful executive presidency coupled with a largely neutered Parliament. Nearly all state power now rests with Mr. Mugabe, who has run the country since independence in 1980, and now presides over a nation with severe fuel and food shortages and an inflation rate of more than a million percent a year.

Yet it is possible for the Parliament to jettison the presidency. Recall that Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections in March gave the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai, 109 seats in the House of Assembly to 97 for Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF. Though by no means flawless, these elections were not marred by the same degree of violence and intimidation as the recent presidential election, in which the winner of the first round, Mr. Tsvangirai, withdrew from the race in fear for his life and those of his supporters.

The Movement for Democratic Change’s slight majority is a relatively accurate depiction of the country’s political landscape, giving both sides significant representation in Parliament, with the M.D.C. controlling the 210-seat lower house, and the parties effectively tied in the Senate. That would allow a Prime Minister Tsvangirai to govern while still requiring his party to compromise with ZANU-PF to gain the two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional amendments — like getting rid of the presidency for good. That would also help protect ZANU-PF supporters, including military officers, from state-sponsored revenge.

More immediately, a newly empowered Parliament would give reformist elements in ZANU-PF a forum in which to conduct politics and make deals. The party is no longer a monolith: former Finance Minister Simba Makoni ran for president against Mr. Mugabe in the first round, and there are leaders within ZANU-PF who are more than willing to abandon the “old man” given the opportunity to do so. These leaders — including Gen. Solomon Mujuru and former Home Affairs Minister Dumiso Dabengwa — are the natural negotiating partners of the Movement for Democratic Change, not the indefatigable Mr. Mugabe and his coterie of hard-liners.

The newly elected parliamentarians haven’t been sworn in yet, and some seats remain contested. But once they find a way to meet, they could rather quickly declare the Parliament sovereign and terminate Mr. Mugabe’s reign. In the last few decades, African countries like Benin and Mali made transitions from authoritarian rule by taking similar actions at so-called national conferences.

What’s more, a sovereign parliament with significant ZANU-PF backing could credibly offer amnesty deals to the generals who had sustained Mr. Mugabe’s tyranny. Although distasteful, such amnesty deals would be critical to any lasting settlement and would be far easier to achieve without Mr. Mugabe in the picture — particularly if the Parliament’s sovereignty were recognized by the African Union and the United Nations.

A parliamentary government would have the virtue of not only dislodging Mr. Mugabe, but assuring a more democratic Zimbabwe in the future. Indeed, Zimbabwe began as a parliamentary democracy, but Mr. Mugabe found that form of government too restrictive and abolished the office of prime minister in 1987, concentrating power in an executive presidency.

Political scientists have demonstrated that parliamentary regimes are more likely to remain democratic than their presidential counterparts. Power and legitimacy in the new regime would be vested in a representative body, not a single person or office. Moreover, parliaments are institutionally appropriate for politically and ethnically divided societies like Zimbabwe: they ensure representation for political minorities and generally require compromise in order to form governments.

With other geriatric presidents clinging to power throughout Africa — Omar Bongo in Gabon and Paul Biya in Cameroon are but two examples — more Zimbabwe-like crises may be on the horizon. The international community would be well served to support institutional alternatives to the continent’s over-empowered executives, beginning with a parliamentary (and free) Zimbabwe.

Mark Y. Rosenberg, the southern Africa analyst for Freedom House.