Zimbabwe: Mugabe critics angry at poll claims

Reports of a huge turnout for a constitutional referendum at the weekend led to incredulity among critics of Robert Mugabe’s regime yesterday.

Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) chief, Judge Rita Makarau, said more than three million Zimbabweans had voted to approve the draft constitution in Saturday’s poll, with just under 180,000 voting against.

But critics of the Mugabe regime were shocked, as the judge on Sunday had estimated voter turnout at just two million – 1.3 million less than the final tally.

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The ZEC also revealed that 94.5 per cent of voters were in favour of the new constitution backed by the president.

The poll was widely seen as a practice run for July’s presidential elections, in which Mr Mugabe, 89, is determined to stand.

The constitution took four years to write and was a key demand of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan ­Tsvangirai, who is prime minister in Zimbabwe’s troubled ­power-sharing government.

The result was expected: both Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai had urged their supporters to vote Yes. However, many people had not even seen the 172-page document, which only slightly whittles down the president’s powers, including forcing him to get two-thirds of MPs to approve a declaration of a state of emergency and making it harder to dissolve parliament.

The document also limits the president to two five-year terms of office – but is not retrospective, so Mr Mugabe could theoretically remain in power for another ten years.

What was unexpected was the voter turnout of 3.3 million, given the apathy witnessed on Saturday. The figure represents around half of all Zimbabwean adults eligible to vote in the referendum. Unlike in presidential elections, voters only needed to present their IDs and did not need to show they were on the voters’ roll.

A spokesman for Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party said the turnout was the highest since independence. Paul Mangwana added: “I think we’ve shamed our detractors by the manner in which we’ve conducted ourselves.”

Mr Tsvangirai appeared to accept the results without question, tweeting: “We have ushered in a new Zimbabwe that must necessarily come with a new culture of constitutionalism and respect for the rule of law.”

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However, not everyone was convinced. Political analyst Takavafira Zhou of the University of Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo, said: “I urge the MDC to interrogate these outcomes. The polling stations were empty, the areas were empty. If the MDC formations accept this high turnout, it will be difficult to reject the results of elections.”

Voting stations in parts of the capital Harare – which has a population of around two million – were all but deserted.

In densely-populated Mbare township, queues of around 50 people waited to cast their votes outside tents on Saturday morning, unlike the hundreds seen waiting in line at elections in 2008, when voter turnout was 2.5 million.

Residents of the cities of Bulawayo and Mutare told stories of visits to polling stations with two or three voters. One witness said locals were so wary of voting that churches had advised members not to travel in buses on Saturday in case they were frogmarched to polling stations.

Voting was higher in rural areas. One MDC official from the central Mvurwi district said new farmers there were being forced to vote. Turnout was also high in the Zanu-PF stronghold of Mazowe, where Mr Mugabe’s wife Grace, has built an orphanage and a school.

Saturday’s vote was swiftly followed by a fresh clampdown on Mugabe opponents, with the arrest of four MDC officials and top rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who tried to defend them. All were still in custody yesterday despite a High Court order for Ms Mtetwa’s release.