Many Zimbabweans turned a deaf ear to pleas for them to exercise their right to vote on the country's new constitution. If passed, it will open up the way for elections later this year.
Zimbabwe has held a long-awaited referendum on a new draft constitution, a major step on the road to presidential elections expected to be held later this year. However, it seems not all the country's more than six million eligible voters were impressed by the historic nature of the poll held on Saturday (16.03.2013) as turnout was low. According to the country's electoral commission, early returns indicated that just two million people took part.
Some certainly stayed away to express their opposition to the exercise which was overhadowed by complaints that voters had not been given enough time to study and fully understand the document which runs to well over a hundred pages.
The run-up to the referendum was accompanied by several court challenges as NGOs tried to postpone the vote, seeking more time to study the complex document. "Some were even saying they had never seen the document and were relying on those who were popularizing it, that is, the politicians who were going out to encourage people to vote 'yes'," said Solomon Zwana who heads the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a coalition of NGOs that observed the referendum.
Contents 'came from Zimbabweans'
President Robert Mugabe had a simple answer to this. After casting his vote, he said the contents of the proposed constitution had come from Zimbabweans so they did not need time to study it again. Asked why he had barred Western observers from both the referendum and the upcoming elections he said that "the Europeans and the Americans have imposed sanctions on us and we keep them out in the same way they keep us out."
The West imposed sanctions 11 years ago, claiming Mugabe was responsible for political violence and rights abuses.
On Sunday there were reports that several senior officials of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, had been arrested along with prominent rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa.
According to the organization Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights she was being charged with "obstructing or defeating the course of justice" following a police raid on the home of Tsvangirai's chief legal advisor Thabani Mpofu.
A fresh start?
On the streets of Harare, as in the rest of the country, there were mixed opinions about the importance of the referendum. Human rights activist Briggs Shumba was happy to participate "in a real constitution reform process which will reform our constitution in a way that secures people's rights similar to the constitution that Venezuela or South Africa has."
But 29-year-old cobbler Fungisai Charwe voted 'no', saying the level of disinterest shown by voters meant that Zimbabwe would have a constitution not fully backed by the people and that "corruption and the breakdown of the rule of law would persist even with a progressive constitutional document."
For Mathew Mhuri, a supporter of Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, the referendum represents a fresh start for the country, as it marks the casting off the last trappings of colonialism. "I voted 'yes' because we wanted ourselves to make our own constitution. Since independence we were dealing with the Lancaster House constitution," Mhuri told DW in a reference to the document drafted by former colonial power Britain and representatives of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe was known before independence in 1979.
Way now clear for elections
The constitution is expected to be approved by the great majority of those who did turn out to vote. In a nutshell, it paves the way for free and fair elections and also sets limitations on the powers of the president. The country has been ruled since 1980 by the now 89-year-old Mugabe, since 2009 in a coalition with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Under the new constitution, a president may rule for no more than two five-year terms. However, Mugabe's previous terms will not be taken into account, so if he should win the next election, expected to be held between July and October this year, he could theoretically rule for another ten years, finally bowing out at the age of 99.
The upcoming elections will mark the end of the present coalition government which was formed following a disputed election which regional leaders nullified, citing violence by Mugabe's militia against Tsvangirai's supporters. Pressure was brought to bear on the two to form a power-sharing government which was ordered to draft a new constitution as a precondition for elections.
Tomaz Salomao, Executive Secretary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) underlined the importance of Saturday's referendum, describing it as a "key milestone to the next step which is the most important step, and we hope that Zimbabweans will perform in the same way in order to make history and take full responsibility for their own destiny."
Results from the referendum are expected by the middle of the week.