HARARE (AFP) – Zimbabwe will vote on a new constitution in March and hold crunch elections in July, the prime minister said Wednesday, 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.
However rights groups have warned that Zimbabwe is behind on reforms that would allow credible elections, and the government itself has said it does not have enough money to hold them.
Officials from Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF told AFP that the referendum will be held on March 16,
“The date agreed to by the principals is the 16th,” Mugabe spokesman George Charamba told AFP. “It’s a firm date now and we are working towards that.”
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.
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 serious 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 and to sign up to a democratic roadmap.
Tsvangirai vowed this year’s votes will be fair and said he would fight to insure “no-one is disenfranchised by hook or by crook”.
“If Mugabe’s position that we need a free and fair election is a ruse, then he would have cheated me,” Tsvangirai said.
He said Zimbabwe is planning to push the Southern African Development Community to hold a summit to discuss conditions for free and fair elections.
SADC head Tomaz Salomao told AFP the bloc was “more than happy,” with the announcement of the date.
“We have been supporting this process.”
The 15-member grouping mediated in the Zimbabwe crisis and brokered the creation of the power-sharing government.
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 farm and businesses have rocked the economy, prompting hyper-inflation that ran to more than 200 million percent.
But hurdles remain.
A rejection by voters of the draft charter could also spell turmoil and may even see opposition groups boycott the elections.
Phillan Zamchiya, coordinator of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, warned that the dates give Zimbabweans little time to study the constitution, which was agreed in January.
The process of drafting the new constitution, which started more than two years ago, was plagued by chronic delays and violence at public meetings.
“Our immediate response is that there is little time for civic education on the draft constitution,” he said.
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.
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.”