analysisBy Richard Lee
After years of delays and disagreements, it looks as if the three main political parties in Zimbabwe have decided on a timetable - holding a constitutional referendum in March followed by presidential and parliamentary elections perhaps as early as July.
Given that it has taken 4 ½ years since the signing of the Global Political Agreement in 2008, it will come as a shock to many that the referendum and elections will be held so soon - not least the forces lining up behind a 'no' vote on the constitution.
Considering that ZANU-PF and the two MDC factions are likely to push for a 'yes' vote, the 'vote-no' campaign already faced an uphill struggle. If the March 16th date is confirmed, it will give them only a month to drum up support - reducing their chances even further.
And while some argue that it is not as bad as feared but it is still far from ideal, there is no doubt that some groups are fiercely opposed to the final draft constitution.
Professor Lovemore Madhuku - who leads the National Constitutional Assembly and was instrumental in the previous, successful 'no' campaign in the constitutional referendum of 2000 - says this he will campaign against the draft constitution because the document was produced through a politically negotiated compromise rather than a truly people-driven process.
He is also extremely critical of the final product for leaving too much power in the hands of the president.
"Our major problem in Zimbabwe has been the concentration of power in the president," said Madhuku during a debate on the final draft constitution hosted by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA). "If you have a very powerful president who is not restrained by law, just restrained by their own good heart, the law would simply allow them to go on and on and we create a problem for our country. That problem has not been solved by the current constitutional draft."
The International Socialist Organisation has also denounced the draft and urged people to vote 'no'.
The COPAC Constitution is a negotiated and elitist peace charter by the three parliamentary political parties and their western backers," said the ISO in a statement. "While gains have been made in relation to the inclusion of some socio-economic, gender and labour rights, a deeper look at the COPAC Draft shows that it fails to address fundamental issues of severe poverty, gender and social inequality, economic democratisation and full political democracy."
Others have complained that same sex marriage is still banned and that the death penalty remains - although not for women.
However, the draft's supporters point to a number of important gains and argue that the current draft is a marked improvement on the previous, much-amended Lancaster House Constitution.
Minister Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, who is Secretary-General of the smaller MDC faction argued during the OSISA-debate that the document - which she helped to draft - was not perfect but was certainly better than leaving the current constitution in place.
She stressed that the draft gives women more rights and does limit presidential powers, including introducing a two term limit - although Mugabe could still serve another two terms before having to step down at the ripe old age of 99.
She also argued that the process of drafting the document had involved a large number of Zimbabweans and had - most importantly - created unprecedented space for debate and dialogue on key national issues. "That opening up, I don't think you can reverse it," she said. "It is a process which you can't put a cost to...but it was something that was crucial, that was important for the people of Zimbabwe to have."
Minister Misihairabwi-Mushonga admitted that the process was not perfect but she urged the draft's opponents to be realistic and to accept that elections under the new constitutional dispensation would be freer and fairer than before. "Because we had to negotiate, it can't be a 100 percent document," she said. "But is it indeed so bad that you think that it has not moved us forward?"
Clearly it has in some spheres. For example, Nicole Fritz, the Executive Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) was adamant that the new draft represented a big step forward for women's rights. "There are tremendous gains for women in this draft from equality clauses to anti-discrimination to 50/50 representation on key commissions," she stressed.
However, she also voiced a word of warning - constitutions are only as good as the people who are tasked with upholding them. "As good or bad as this constitution is, ultimately it will depend on appointing people to judiciary and key commissions who are equal to the task," she said.
All these pros and cons will be fiercely debated over the next month. After that - if the 'yes' campaign does triumph - all eyes will be on the whether the country's new supreme law makes any difference to the conduct of the all-important elections that are tentatively scheduled for July.