HARARE — After long years of waiting, Zimbabweans on Saturday voted in a constitution referendum geared at laying the ground for watershed elections in July and expected to end an often acrimonious four-year-old power-sharing deal between President Robert Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai.
Among those who rooted for the exercise was octogenarian Mugabe, who celebrated his 89th birthday earlier this month. Despite murmurs of failing health, Mugabe has recently said he believes he will win another five-year term in the forthcoming crucial elections.
With six million Zimbabweans eligible to vote in the referendum, the draft constitution is widely expected to sail through because of cross-party support.
Reports from Zimbabwe early on Saturday, however, indicated that tensions were running high. On Friday, seven members of Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change were attacked by suspected supporters of President Mugabe, and yesterday, armed gunmen abducted an ally of Tsvangirai’s, his party said.
Meanwhile, there have been warnings by analysts of the likelihood of a poor turnout because the process was not well publicised.
Moreover, there have been calls for a delay of the exercise so that people can have more time to study the draft — the 115-page document was only released in early February. Spirited attempts to delay the process have, however, been unsuccessful.
Unwavering critics of the draft — including the National Constitutional Assembly — have persistently criticised the document as not being good enough because “it leaves the president’s powers largely intact”.
Such views aside, even the NCA, which has been drumming up support for a “No” vote, has reportedly had to contend with being drowned out by the three coalition parties — Zanu-PF and two MDC formations. The parties command major political support in the country and have been fervently urging their supporters to vote “Yes” in the referendum.
But while President Mugabe’s opponents agree that the document is not perfect, they argue it presents a good opportunity for the country to reform its institutions.
Not surprisingly Mugabe has in recent weeks become the unlikely bedfellow of erstwhile hostile civic society groups that have rallied behind the draft constitution, which Zimbabwe took three years to come up with.
Motley supporters of Saturday’s referendum have reportedly contended that the draft constitution, whatever its shortcomings, presents the best opportunity to initiate reforms after years of political deadlock.
Among other things, the draft, limits future presidents to two five-year terms.
It is also expected to result in the stripping away of presidential immunity from prosecution.
Among other provisions of the draft are the binding of the police and the military to be impartial, while also forbidding them from meddling in electoral issues.
The draft also provides for the reining in of presidential influence on the appointment of members of the Judiciary, while also guaranteeing the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.