ZIMBABWEANS vote in a referendum on a new constitution on Saturday, the last major hurdle in a raft of reforms agreed by the coalition led by President Robert Mugabe which will culminate in new elections.
The draft constitution is expected to avoid the fate of its forerunner which was rejected in 2000, largely because of cross-party support by coalition leaders – Robert Mugabe of Zanu PF, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T and Welshman Ncube of the MDC.
The three leaders have urged their supporters to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum which will be held under relaxed voting rules with only identity documents required for one to cast a ballot and no requirement to be on the voters’ roll.
Opposition leaders Job Sikhala and Simba Makoni are calling on their supporters to reject the draft, which they say is a compromise documents between the hopelessly divided coalition.
On Friday, Sikhala attended a press conference with teachers’ union leader Raymond Majongwe and Lovemore Madhuku, leader of the National Constitutional Assembly pressure group, where they once again reiterated their opposition.
Mugabe, Tsvangirai and Ncube are anxious for the referendum vote – which will be monitored by a regional observer mission and all embassies accredited to Zimbabwe – to run peacefully.
Police have deployed in huge numbers across the country, seeking to maintain peace and offer reassurance to the public.
The European Union, Australia and the United States which maintain sanctions on Zimbabwe say the referendum vote is a barometer on the country’s readiness to hold elections, after the violence-marred June 2008 presidential run-off.
The sanctions could all be lifted entirely if the referendum passes peacefully, although the MDC-T is rankled that western observers were barred by Mugabe.
Mugabe is expected to announce an election date sometime this month following the conclusion of the four-year constitution exercise, but Tsvangirai has stated that they will be held in July.
Political analysts say despite the collective push by the coalition parties, there will be no overwhelming endorsement for the draft constitution. Six million Zimbabweans are eligible to vote in the referendum, but only 600,000 copies of the draft constitution were printed – suggesting a huge percentage of those expected to vote are unlikely to have read the document, and are unlikely to be motivated to cast their ballots.
Speaking in Bulawayo on Thursday, his last rally, Tsvangirai told supporters the current constitution – in place since Zimbabwe’s independence from white colonial rule in 1980 – was a “ceasefire document and not a democratic document”.
“Zanu PF used it as a power transfer tool. As a result, after 18 amendments the Constitution brought our nation to its knees,” Tsvangirai said.
“The new Constitution sets out the Bill of Rights which for the first time expands people’s rights in totality. People shall henceforth be able to freely express their opinion, associate, and move freely without fear.
“There shall be a devolved State. Everything shall be done at provincial level. Provinces shall be more accountable and resources distributed equally.”
The new constitution has no place for a Prime Minister – Tsvangirai's current position – making another coalition unlikely after the general elections.
Voting will take place across Saturday with polls set to close at nightfall. Results are not expected until early next week.