, HARARE, Mar 16 – Polls opened in Zimbabwe early Saturday for a key referendum on a new constitution that would curb President Robert Mugabe’s powers and pave the way for elections later in the year.
The country’s main political parties, including Mugabe’s long ruling ZANU-PF, are in favour of the proposed law changes, making the simple majority needed for a “yes” vote a near certainly.
Polls opened across the country at 0500 GMT with no immediate reports of unrest, but the pace of voting appeared slow at polling stations where AFP correspondents were present.
In Harare’s flashpoint township of Mbare, where violence broke out on the eve of polling, Felistas Muridhini was one was one of dozens lining up to vote. The 34-year-old mother said she had voted in favour of the draft.
“I have been following the drafting of the constitution. I voted yes, because I was acting on my party’s orders,” she said.
Takawira Marimo, a 47-year-old handyman on his way to the second city of Bulawayo, also cast his ballot in Mbare.
“I have done the right thing, I have exercised my right. I wanted to vote before I start my work today,” he said.
Excited first-time voter Jephiter Rugare, 22, said: “I am happy to vote, I hope my vote will count.”
At Chitungwiza, a sprawling town on the fringes of the capital where Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is expected to vote shortly, just a handful of people turned out to vote early on Saturday.
An attack on activists and officials of Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party on the eve of the vote marred what had been, by Zimbabwean standards, a blood-free campaign.
Although authorities have been accused of targeting pro-democracy groups in the run-up to Saturday’s vote, arresting their leaders and seizing equipment, few serious incidents of violence have been reported.
During Friday’s attack, MDC members were punched as they put up posters urging voters to approve the proposed law.
The MDC suggested the attack was perpetrated by supporters of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front.
Police dismissed the incident as stage-managed by a BBC television crew, who were also attacked, to “portray Zimbabwe as a violent country”.
Around six million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots at 9,456 polling stations dotted across the southern African country.
Official results of the referendum are expected to be released within five days of the vote.
The new constitution would rein in the presidential powers that Mugabe has enjoyed during his 33-year rule and lay the groundwork for elections expected in July.
The vote is likely to end an often acrimonious power-sharing deal between 89-year-old Mugabe and his rival Tsvangirai.
Disputed elections in 2008 left more than 180 people dead and 9,000 injured, according to Amnesty International, and sparked a national crisis that forced Mugabe into a coalition government with Tsvangirai.
The newly appointed head of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Rita Makarau, on Friday called for a peaceful referendum vote.
“Please go and vote peacefully, this is our supreme law,” said Makarau.
The draft constitution, which was scheduled to be completed within 18 months, eventually took three years to draw up.
Tsvangirai, who held nearly daily townhouse rallies ahead of the vote, has asked religious leaders to pray for the impoverished country, once one of the richest in Africa.
The new laws would decentralise power and limit Mugabe — and any subsequent presidents — to two five-year terms.
Mugabe would however be eligible to stay in power until 2023, by which time he would be 99.
The basic law puts improvements in human rights to the fore, along with freedom of the press and gender equality.
It also enshrines free, fair and regular elections.
But observers fear there will not be enough time to apply all the necessary reforms to ensure a healthier political environment before the next elections.
Others complain there was not enough time to debate and digest the text, leaving citizens in the dark about what the vote will mean for the country.
“I don’t even know what’s good or bad in the constitution but I am going to vote still,” said Evans Gororo, a villager in Chinamhora, on the outskirts of Harare.
The National Constitutional Assembly, a non-government group, wants to see the new constitution rejected, arguing that if anything it grants Mugabe more unfettered powers than before.
“This draft constitution is an insult to the people,” said the group’s leader Lovemore Madhuku.
Rights groups also said they feared the government’s harassment of activists ahead of the referendum could be seen as a prelude to a more serious crackdown on opponents in the run-up to the general election.