Zimbabwe brings forward referendum on constitution

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Zimbabwe will hold a referendum on a new constitution in March – a month earlier than expected – and general elections in July, prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai said yesterday.

President Robert Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai, his main rival, are urging their supporters to back the new constitution on 16 March, which could allow Mr Mugabe to stay in power for ten more years if he wins the next two elections. The pair have been locked in a power-sharing agreement since violence-marred elections in 2008.

Mr Mugabe is set to confirm the referendum date on Friday, the constitutional affairs minister, Eric Matinenga, said.

It is being held earlier than expected, two weeks after the president’s 89th birthday party. Voting may stretch into a second day “to accommodate all the people who want to participate,” Mr Matinenga said.

The announcement came as state media reported that Mr Mugabe’s election chief had resigned. Retired Justice Simpson Mutambenengwe stepped down on health grounds. He was only appointed in 2010. Like the head of the human rights commission, Reginald Austin, who resigned in December, the former judge was trusted by Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. His replacement will probably be named next week.

The constitution has taken four years to draft and cost nearly £32 million, much of it from western donors. Zanu-PF resisted attempts to limit Mr Mugabe’s powers. Term limits will only be implemented in ten years’ time and reforms to the attorney general’s office in seven years’ time.