Harare, Zimbabwe - Zimbabweans will vote on a long-awaited draft constitution next month in a referendum that some observers say could help end the country's years of political acrimony and violence ahead of elections slated for later this year.
But opponents of the draft, led by a coalition of civil rights groups, contend that not enough time has been given to the people to review the charter after President Robert Mugabe announced earlier this month that the referendum would be held on March 16.
The ruling parties that drafted the new constitution over the past four years have organised nationwide rallies, urging their supporters to vote "yes" in the referendum.
Legislators say if adopted it will address the root causes of political turmoil in Zimbabwe, strengthen the role of parliament, and provide greater civil rights, including elevating the status of women.
Douglas Mwonzora, a co-chair of the constitution drafting committee, said while the charter was a compromise between the main political parties, it is a strong document to govern the southern African country into the future.
One of the main features of the constitution are term limits for the president, head of the military, and other senior positions, Mwonzora said.
"We have the most comprehensive bill of rights on the African continent. For the first time in the history of the country, we have devolution of power."
- Douglas Mwonzora, legislator
The presidency would be limited to two, four-year terms in office with a greater parliamentary role to check government power. There would also be no prime minister.
"We have the most comprehensive bill of rights on the African continent," Mwonzora told a public debate in the capital Harare last week. "For the first time in the history of the country, we have devolution of power."
Most analysts predict a resounding "yes" vote to the new constitution with the main political parties onboard and significant efforts under way to rally supporters.
But the outcome depends on whether the referendum's opponents "are not intimidated … and turn out in large numbers" with three weeks to go before the vote, said Hopewell Gumbo, a Harare-based academic and socio-political commentator.
"There seems to be a growing number of independent thought against the draft constitution," Gumbo said.
Putting away the past
Mugabe, who turned 89 last week, has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since the country officially gained independence from Britain in 1980, using the military, police, and militia groups to keep people in line.
The last time Zimbabweans voted in the March 2008 presidential election, the country descended into chaos after Mugabe was defeated by arch-foe Morgan Tsvangirai, but without a sufficient majority to remove him from power.
More than 200 people were killed and an estimated 200,000 others internally displaced in election-related violence, according to human rights organisations.
Tsvangirai - leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party - later pulled out of the run-off presidential race, citing the violence.
But Zimbabwe - a country of 12 million people - has been largely at peace since a power-sharing agreement in March 2009 installed a government that includes President Mugabe of the Zanu-PF party, his rival and now Prime Minister Tsvangirai, and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara.
|Morgan Tsvangirai speaks in Harare in September 2012 [Reuters]
The political agreement - brokered by the 15-country regional bloc Southern Africa Development Cooperation - outlined a series of reforms that had to be enacted before new elections, including a new constitution.
Last week, the 27-nation European Union lifted sanctions on six ministers close to Mugabe as a reward for the agreement on a referendum between the president and Tsvangirai. The deal "adds further momentum to the reform process", said Aldo Dell'Ariccia, the EU representative in Harare.
Western diplomats have made no secret they want reform to avert another violent election, and have promised to ease sanctions further if the referendum is free and fair.
"We have shown by removing some individuals from the sanctions and travel ban that we will reward progress, but also that we will keep certain measures in place," said UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. "We want to see a properly conducted referendum and we want to see credible and properly conducted elections in Zimbabwe."
Despite signs of progress towards reform, the constitution-making process has been plagued by cash shortages, which have threatened the March 16 referendum date, as well as opposition from a coalition of groups wanting more time to review the recently released draft.
The major force calling for the referendum's delay is the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a broad alliance of opposition parties, church groups, trades unions and civic organisations that say the process was not "people-driven", and that those involved wrote the constitution of suit their own agendas.
NCA chairman Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional law expert, said the new draft charter still concentrates power in the hands of the president.
Madhuku also denounced the one-month time period given to Zimbabweans to review the draft constitution as insufficient, saying the country's leaders are trying to fast-track the document.
The NCA - which claims a membership of 200,000 - has approached the High Court in Harare seeking to extend the review period.
In an opposing affidavit filed at the High Court last week, Mugabe denounced the NCA for trying to postpone the vote.
"The draft constitution has been prepared and what the people are being asked to do is vote for or against it," Mugabe argued.
"It is not true that the announcement of the date was without prior warning. This process has been going on for four years and it was public knowledge that … the draft constitution was to be put to a referendum," the president said.
Munyaradzi Gwisai - leader of the International Socialist Organisation Zimbabwe and a former legislator - said the politicians were in a hurry to "fool" the people.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai made more than 200 amendments to an initial draft that contained views gleaned from four-month nationwide public hearings held in 2010, said Gwisai.
"In Kenya, the people were given four months to look at the constitution, but here we are being given one month because they want to hide the deception," Gwisai said.
Mwonzora, the co-chair of the constitution drafting committee, rejected the accusation. He said opponents of the referendum were like "a dog barking at a moving train".
Ready for reform
Proponents of the draft constitution say it will reform the colonial architecture inherited at independence in 1980 from Britain. But analysts say real change will only come with political will from the country's leaders to uphold constitutionalism.
"It's been four years, we were getting tired of all the arguments. At least they agree now, and that's good for the country. Perhaps we can now focus on the election."
- John Mashava, mechanic
"What this draft does is that it enables cohesion and stability in the country," said Charity Manyeruke, a University of Zimbabwe political scientist. "There is power balance in this constitution.
"The majority of Zimbabweans had grown sick and tired of the amendments and we now have a consolidated document, a total package. Fundamentally, it speaks to our values and principles as Zimbabweans."
Finance Minister Tendai Biti and Justice and Legal Affairs Minister Patrick Chinamasa have been tasked with fundraising for the cash-short referendum, which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission pegs at costing $85m. More than 9,000 polling stations will be used during the referendum.
"We can safely say that there is enough money that has been raised locally to finance the referendum. The referendum will not be stopped because of lack of money," Chinamasa was quoted by the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper as saying on Sunday.
Biti told reporters on Friday the United Nations was asked for financial assistance, but the request arrived too late. "So we are on our own for the referendum," he said.
The government says it also needs another $140m for the general elections expected later this year.The UN resident coordinator in Harare, Alanne Noudehou, said a team will be dispatched for a "needs assessment mission".
For housewife Tevedzerai Maposa, there is no need for a referendum, since all the major players are already in agreement on the draft constitution.
"It's a waste of money to have this referendum when they all agree. Why can't they just proceed to the election?" she asked.
John Mashava, a mechanic, said he was glad the constitution-making process was finally coming to an end.
"It's been four years, we were getting tired of all the arguments," Mashava said. "At least they agree now, and that's good for the country. Perhaps we can now focus on the election."