Zimbabwe: Referendum approves new constitution

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Could this be Zimbabwe’s new beginning: a constitution that would finally limit the powers of the autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, and set the nation on a course for free elections later in 2013?

President Robert Mugabe (Picture: DOD Media)

When the results of the referendum were announced on March 19th, it was apparent that around 95% of those voting had been in favour of the new constitution that will pave the way for new elections.

The referendum itself, held on March 16th, was marred, however, by a very low voter turnout, a police raid on an opposition office, and the arrest of a prominent human-rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa.  Less than a half of the 6.6m registered voters turned out to vote, and the next day a senior adviser to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Thabani Mpofu and three of his assistants were arrested, while Mtetwa suffered the same fate when she arrived on the scene asking police for a search warrant.

Tallies of the poll released by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission showed 3,079,966 voters were in favour of the new constitution and 179,489 were against.

“Since the majority of the votes were received in favour of the adoption of the draft constitution, it is declared to have been adopted by the people of Zimbabwe,” said Lovemore Sekeramayi, the official in charge of the vote tally.

President Mugabe and his long-time rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai had both backed the draft constitution that will usher in fresh polls to end the pair’s tense unity government. A general election is now expected to be held in July, and this will decide whether the 89-year-old Mugabe will stay in power. Elections permitting,  he could stay in office for another decade, until he is 99.

But while the referendum was largely free of violence, the continuing wave of arrests of opposition supporters and human rights activists is an ominous sign for future.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) described the referendum as “peaceful and credible” but condemned isolated cases of violence on the eve of the vote.

“This is a major step in the implementation” of reforms agreed under the uneasy power-sharing government between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.

SADC observers “noted reports of isolated cases of intimidation and harassment in some areas and in particular in Mbare, Harare”.

The US embassy also commended the conduct of the referendum saying it “has helped to gain confidence in the Zimbabwean people…and the international community.”

“This historic step forward in the nation’s development of democracy and rule of law is part of an important process…,” the embassy said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Tsvangirai’s staffers have been charged with breaching the official secrets code, impersonating the police and illegal possession of documents for criminal use.

Lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa faces separate charges. The arrests have raised concerns that elections slated from July may see a rerun of bloodshed that has tainted past elections.

In a separate development, despite an EU travel ban, President Mugabe travelled to Italy to  attend the inauguration of Pope Francis on March 19th. The Vatican city-state is not part of the EU although Mugabe had to transit through Rome.




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