ZIMBABWE will vote on a new constitution in March and hold crunch elections in July, the prime minister says, setting a timetable that will decide the fate of veteran President Robert Mugabe.
“There will be a referendum in March,” said Morgan Tsvangirai, hailing the new constitution as a major step toward democratic reform.
Officials from Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change and Mugabe's Zanu PF said the referendum will be held on March 16.
“The date agreed to by the principals is the 16th,” Mugabe spokesman George Charamba said. “It's a firm date now and we are working towards that.”
However rights groups have warned that Zimbabwe is behind on reforms and preparations that would allow credible elections. Fears of violence and intimidation tactics remain.
But the referendum is being seen as a key step toward democratisation.
Zimbabweans will be asked to vote for a law that would set presidential term limits and abolish the head of state's immunity for the first time.
Rivals Mugabe and Tsvangirai have both endorsed the draft text.
The law would also set the stage for them to face off in a presidential election, which Tsvangirai revealed would be held in July in tandem with a legislative vote, although he gave no precise date.
A victory for the 88-year-old Mugabe would extend his 32 years in power, a reign that in the last decade has been marked by economic meltdown and allegations of rights violations.
Previous polls have been marred by deadly violence and allegations of vote-rigging by Mugabe's camp.
The deaths of 200 people in widely disputed 2008 elections brought international condemnation.
In the wake of the vote, and after heavy international pressure, Mugabe reluctantly agreed to form a power-sharing government with Tsvangirai and to sign up to a democratic roadmap.
Tsvangirai vowed this year's votes will be fair and said he would fight to ensure “no-one is disenfranchised by hook or by crook”.
The role of the army and security services is likely to be key.
“The real challenges,” according to Thabani Nyoni, a spokesman for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, are “political behaviour, intolerance and interference by sectors like the security sector.”
“One month can be enough time to decimate information and debate.”
Tsvangirai admitted: “If Mugabe's position that we need a free and fair election is a ruse, then he would have cheated me.”
The process of drafting the new constitution, which started more than two years ago, was plagued by chronic delays and violence at public meetings.
Human Rights Watch has warned that the country is well behind schedule with vital reforms needed to ensure a credible and violence-free election.
Repressive legislation has yet to be struck off the books, it said.
In recent weeks police have raided the offices of a prominent human rights organisations in what lawyers said was the latest attempt to intimidate pro-democracy campaigners.
Tsvangirai said Zimbabwe is planning to push the Southern African Development Community to hold a summit to discuss how to make sure the elections are free and fair.
SADC head Tomaz Salomao said the bloc was “more than happy,” with the announcement of the vote dates, but would not comment further.
The 15-member grouping mediated in the Zimbabwe crisis and brokered the creation of the power-sharing government.
South Africa, which has been one of Mugabe's staunchest allies in public, also welcomed the announcement.
Clayson Monyela, South Africa's foreign affairs ministry spokesman, said it should help “paving the way for Zimbabwe to go to a free and fair democratic election.”
Observers hope the elections will put Zimbabwe, once one of the richest countries in Africa, back on a path to prosperity.
International sanctions and laws which seized white owned farms and businesses have rocked the economy, prompting hyper-inflation that ran to more than 200 million percent.
Yet hurdles remain.
Zimbabweans have been given little time to study the constitution, which was agreed in January and has not yet been formally published.
A rejection by voters of the draft charter could spell turmoil and may even see opposition groups boycott the elections.
The Zimbabwe Election Commission, which will administer the vote, was thrown into crisis on Wednesday when its chief executive resigned citing ill health.
Meetings are expected on Monday to choose his replacement.
Zimbabwe's crash-strapped government has also repeatedly said it does not have enough money to hold the votes.
Tsvangirai on Wednesday admitted: “We are looking for the money.”