ZIMBABWE will hold a referendum on a new constitution on March 16, it was announced on Wednesday.
Constitutional Affairs Minister Eric Matinenga said the leaders of the parties in the ruling coalition had decided following a meeting on Tuesday that the referendum should be held next month.
After nearly four years of haggling between Zanu PF and the two MDC factions, the parties finally endorsed the draft constitution last month.
President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF party and the two MDC parties led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Welshman Ncube identified a new constitution as the centrepiece of reforms necessary for the holding of free and fair elections.
Between now and March 16, Matinenga said MPs and the political parties would take the draft constitution to the provinces and call on Zimbabweans to vote ‘Yes’ at the referendum.
But critics of the new draft constitution say there is not enough time for people to scrutinise the document and make an informed decision.
“The notice period given is too short for a credible referendum,” said Lovemore Madhuku, leader of the Constitutional Assembly (NCA) pressure group which is calling for a ‘No’vote.
He went on: “People need to be given adequate time to study the document to discuss it and to hear views forward and then make up their minds.
“We are now going to seek a court intervention to get the dates extended by a month. We should expect the referendum no earlier than April.”
The constitutional law expert added: “They have announced it today but no ordinary Zimbabwean has a copy of the proposed draft constitution.”
It is the second time Zimbabwe is attempting to write a new constitution. In 2000, another draft was rejected at a referendum after opposition parties and human rights groups campaigned against it.
Matinenga said he was going to ask the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission – which will conduct the referendum – to open voting across two days.
“It’s one day at the moment, l have indicated that maybe there is need to rethink so that at least we have two days of voting for the referendum. But l ‘m yet to submit my argument to the powers that be,” he told a news conference in Harare.
Zimbabwe’s current constitution, which has been amended 20 times, was negotiated in 1979 at the end of hostilities between the white colonial rulers and liberation forces led by Mugabe and the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo.
The referendum is seen as a dry run for general elections which could be held as early as May, according to Mugabe's Zanu PF party.
On Tuesday, Finance Minister Tendai Biti announced the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had approved a request to fund the referendum and elections whose joint budget stands at US$250 million.