ZIMBABWEANS HAVE BEEN voting on a new constitution that would curb President Robert Mugabe’s powers and pave the way for crucial elections in a country plagued by political violence.
Voters are expected to roundly back the text, which would introduce presidential term limits, beef up parliament’s powers and set elections to decide whether 89-year-old Mugabe stays in power.
Mugabe has ruled uninterrupted since the country’s independence in 1980, despite a series of disputed and violent polls and a severe economic crash propelled by hyper-inflation.
The draft constitution is part of an internationally backed plan to get the country on track. It is supported by both the veteran president and his political nemesis Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
But that has not prevented unrest, as activists keep one eye on the general election slated for July.
Shortly before polls opened today, gunmen later identified as plain clothes police detectives seized a member of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) from his home southeast of Harare.
Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba told AFP Samson Magumura had been arrested on charges of attempted murder in connection with a recent firebomb attack that injured a Mugabe ally.
As he cast his vote on Saturday, Mugabe, whom many blame for past unrest, urged Zimbabweans to ensure the referendum proceeded peacefully.
The new constitution would for the first time put a definite, if distant, end date on Mugabe’s rule. Presidents would be allowed to serve two terms of five years each, meaning Mugabe could rule until 2023, when he would be 99 years old.
The text would also strip away presidential immunity after leaving office, bolster the power of parliament and the courts, and set up a peace and reconciliation commission tasked with post-conflict justice and healing.
In the run-up to the vote, violence did not approach the levels seen in the disputed 2008 elections. Then, at least 180 people were killed and 9,000 injured in a crisis that ultimately forced Mugabe and Tsvangirai into a power-sharing government.
There are widespread fears that July’s election might bring a return to bloodshed.