Will Grace Mugabe become president?

October 16, 2014, 11:49am

Will Grace Mugabe become president?

This question must be on most Zimbabweans’ minds as President Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace is currently on a roll addressing rallies and castigating party members perceived to be eyeing her husband’s post. Forget that Zimbabwe is currently experiencing its worst economic decline since dollarisation, the only thing Zimbabweans are talking about is Grace Mugabe. On Facebook, radio, television and in newspapers, it’s all about Grace. In other countries, polls on first ladies have actually been held to find out their political influence and importance. The first poll involving a first lady appears to have been performed by the Gallup organisation in 1939, when it asked the public’s opinion of Eleanor Roosevelt. When John F Kennedy took office in 1961, Gallup again polled the public’s view of the new first lady. The polls were conducted to find ratings and public perceptions of the first ladies’ duties and activities, and their perceived influence on the president. The issue here, however, is not about polling and rating first ladies, it is about finding out how much influence and importance they must have. Traditionally, first ladies have been expected to be outgoing, attractive, the president’s main “cheerleader” and, whenever possible, seen and not heard. But critics say that role is outdated: in a time when women have made huge gains in equality at home and in the workplace, why should they continue to be mere ornaments in the state house? After all, Grace is a PhD holder. Influence and power In her book Hidden Power Kati Marton explored how both the personal dynamics and public faces of White House marriages have shaped history. In the book we see Edith Wilson literally running the government when her deeply beloved husband becomes ill, how the combination of Franklin Roosevelt’s reassuring spirit and his wife’s humility guided the country through the depression and war, how Bess Truman’s loyalty, bluntness and unpretentiousness were some of her husband’s greatest resources and the superb and necessary diplomacy of Jacqueline Kennedy. We observe how the Fords reassured the US after the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate and how Hillary Clinton saved her husband’s presidency. According to Robert P Watson in his book The Presidents’ Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady, recent polls have highlighted the public concern over the first lady having too much influence and power. In the US, Gallup polls reported that Hillary Clinton had too much influence in the Clinton administration. When polled to find out whether first ladies must have influence on the president, 55.7% strongly agreed that the first lady is important to the success of the president and exactly one half felt she also fulfils an important role in political campaigns. Behind the scenes The popular opinion, however, is that first ladies must not give the appearance of influence and power, but must exercise such influence behind the scenes. History shows many exerted a powerful influence behind the scenes. In the US, president Millard Fillmore checked with his wife, Abigail, before making major decisions. Rosalynn Carter sat in on cabinet meetings with her husband Jimmy and Nancy Reagan had so much power in President Ronald Reagan’s White House that she had his chief of staff fired. One reason for the controversy is that the job itself is unclear. Unlike the presidency, the first lady’s job is not defined in the constitution. As a result, each presidential wife has had to shape the role herself. In the US most of the women who have filled the position were known more for their social skills, charm and good looks than anything they ever said or did. When a first lady did take on an issue, it was usually far from the line of political fire. For example, Barbara Bush, wife of president George Bush, championed the cause of literacy. Enter Hillary Clinton Hillary Clnton was, however, one to stop the trend. Campaigning for her husband in 1992, she promised a co-presidency, saying: “If you vote for Bill, you get me too.” Hillary Clinton spearheaded White House efforts on healthcare, breaking the tradition of first ladies staying out of policy making. But many said she had no business making official policy. “Citizens don’t want a first lady who gives the impression that she’s running things and making policies,” says Paul F Boller Jr, author of Presidential Wives. “No one elects a first lady, so pushing the idea of a co-presidency is seen as a betrayal. The debate over the role of first ladies will continue to burn until there is a female president,” says Boller. “Then the debate will turn to what role the first hubby should play.” Wives taking over from president husbands If Grace chooses to replace her husband, she won’t be a first in the world as the precedents are there. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was elected president of Argentina in 2007. Her candidacy was boosted by the fact that her husband, Néstor Kirchner, was at the time Argentina’s sitting president. This was also not the first time that an Argentinian president was replaced by his wife. Juan Domingo Perón’s third wife, María Estela Martínez, known as Isabel Perón, was elected as vice-president on his ticket and succeeded him as president upon his death in 1974. They are currently trying the same in Panama, with Marta Linares being lined up to replace her husband. According to Associated Press, Linares is a political novice with a scant presence on the campaign trail, but she has one vote that matters more than most in her bid to become Panama’s next vice-president: that of her husband, outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli. Critics say it’s a thinly veiled attempt by Martinelli, a supermarket magnate known for bruising his opponents, to keep his grip on power after a five-year rule marked by mounting complaints of corruption and the steady erosion of checks and balances. From Argentina to Honduras, Latin America of late is full of examples of wives taking over from their president-husbands. Linares however, rejects any notion that she’s her husband’s stand-in. “That’s a very sexist view,” Linares told the Associated Press after addressing a group of 3 000 mostly poor women who were bussed in for a pro-government rally at the recreation club for employees of her husband’s supermarket chain. “We women are capable of making decisions ourselves,” she said. In Zimbabwe, it seems Grace has been so carried away by the bussed crowds attending her rallies that, instead of aiming for the post of women’s league boss she was nominated for, she is now aiming higher. She told a recent rally that she was now targeting an even higher political post after being mentored by her husband President Robert Mugabe for years. “So what is shocking you today? You made me what I am, I was copying from you. You are not supposed to be shocked, I am seeing a higher post. If you are not serious, women will take over the party,” she said. Only time will tell, but Grace Mugabe is wading through charted waters.

Courtesy Namibian Sun ByMalcom Sharara

* Malcom Sharara is Fin24’s correspondent in Zimbabwe. Views expressed are his own.