LONG-TIME political rivals president Robert Mugabe and prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai said they both voted Yes in a one-day referendum on a new constitution for Zimbabwe yesterday which seeks to curb presidential power.
Mugabe said he voted in favour of the constitution – which is backed by all main political parties – to underline how Zimbabwe had mapped out its own future without outside interference.
“It gives us the right to determine together which way to govern ourselves,” he said.
Mugabe, 89, who led the former colony to independence from Britain in 1980, has repeatedly accused western governments of supporting efforts to oust him.
Tsvangirai, 61, mobbed by supporters of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party while voting at a junior high school south of Harare, said a Yes vote marked a turning point “and one of the most important historical steps” for the southern African nation after years of political and economic turmoil. He said it paved the way for a new chapter of the rule of law.
He said those among his party’s supporters who had been killed in political violence down the years “will rest in peace because this is the most important stage we have been fighting for”. He added. “I hope everyone will exercise their vote as a preliminary step to free and fair elections.”
Full-scale presidential and parliamentary elections are pencilled in for around July to end a shaky and dispute-ridden coalition government formed by regional leaders after the last violent and disputed national polls in 2008.
There were no immediate reports of violence yesterday after disturbances between rival youth groups on Friday. Zanu-PF leader Mugabe, voting at a school in western Harare, said he wanted peace to prevail.
“Those who want to fight are allowed to if they are boxers or wrestlers, but to go about beating people in the streets, that’s not allowed,” he said.
Officials said the turnout was high in populous districts after polling stations opened at 7am.
Small knots of voters turned out early in remote areas and also less- populated and wealthier suburbs.
The proposed constitution reduces the entrenched powers of Zimbabwe’s president and includes a range of democratic reforms demanded by regional mediators in Zimbabwe’s decade-long political and economic crisis.
The voting day was announced only a month ago, and critics say voters were not given enough time to study the constitutional proposals in detail. About 9,400 polling stations were set up and 12 million ballot papers were printed. Results are expected within five days.
Abigail Punungwe, a young mother with a baby on her back in a queue at one polling station in Harare, said she had not read the 170-page draft charter, adding: “But everyone is saying we must vote for it.”
Election monitors said printed copies were woefully inadequate in the two main local languages. Many rural Zimbabweans do not speak or read English. Monitors also pointed to only 200 Braille copies being produced for the country’s 40,000 blind people. Voting lines more than 200 metres long in Harare were tapering off by yesterday afternoon.
The nation has 6.6 million registered voters, but yesterday all Zimbabweans over the age of 18 carrying a valid citizen’s identification document could vote during more than 12 hours of polling.
Stations, using indelible finger ink to identify those who had voted, were due to open later into the evening if voters were still in line at closing time.
Munganyi Nyarai, a polling officer in the western Harare township of Mbare, said more young people voted early at her post than would usually be the case in elections.
Voting was running quickly and smoothly but some people in line were turned away because they had not updated their citizenship status and were still classified as “alien” Zimbabwe residents.
Voters were made to turn off mobile phones as a security precaution to stop them from taking photographs inside polling booths.
Since Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, founded his MDC party, four previous elections have been marred by violence and alleged vote- rigging blamed mostly on Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.
The draft constitution reduces presidential powers to pass authoritarian decrees and paves the way for a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission on past violence and human rights violations.
It also strengthens the bill of rights to protect all Zimbabweans from “torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment” that would be enforced by a new constitutional court with powers above the main existing highest court of appeal, the supreme court.
In urging supporters to vote Yes, Mugabe’s party said the draft recognises as irreversible the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms which have been handed over to blacks since 2000.
Black empowerment programmes and the taking control of foreign-owned mines and businesses by locals would also be irreversible.
Mugabe’s party has said the draft constitution honours black guerrilla fighters who ended colonial rule after a seven-year bush war with white-led troops of the former colony of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known before independence.
What’s proposed: five-point guide
1 The draft constitution put before the electorate yesterday imposes a maximum of two five-year terms for the president, starting with the next election. But the limit will not apply retrospectively, so Robert Mugabe – already Africa’s oldest leader at 89 – could rule for another two terms.
2 The draft also strengthens the Cabinet and parliament, both weakened during Mugabe’s 33-year tenure. Presidential decrees will require majority backing in Cabinet and declarations of emergency rule or dissolutions of parliament will need a two-thirds majority of MPs.
3 A ban on same-sex marriage is upheld under the proposed constitution, which also upholds the death penalty, but limits it to cases of “murder committed in aggravating circumstances” by men aged between 21 and 70.
4 There are limited extensions of civil liberties under the new charter, which expands some civil rights, by introducing clauses on freedom of the press, access to information, political choice and activity and prisoners’ rights.
5 Importantly, given the centralisation of power under Mugabe, the draft constitution introduces partial devolution of power to provincial councils, a move which will play to the strength of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.