Zimbabweans will vote on a new Constitution in a referendum set for 16 March, a landmark development that could shape the destiny of the country.
This would replace the present Lancaster House Constitution, which was negotiated in London before Independence and has been amended 19 times since 1980.
The draft Constitution proposes a number of sweeping measures, including increasing the number of women in decision-making positions.
Some of the key highlights of the draft Constitution are that it continues to vest executive authority in the President, who is Head of State and Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces.
Provision is made for two vice-presidents. The draft has a provision that becomes effective only after 10 years that allows for two running mates who would become the vice-presidents for each candidate in elections to choose the President.
The Parliament will be made up of the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly will comprise of a total of 270 members, consisting of 210 MPs elected by secret ballot from 210 single-member constituencies and 60 women elected by proportional representation – six each from the country’s 10 administrative provinces.
The number of proportional representative MPs for each party will be based on the total votes cast for candidates representing each party by province.
The Senate will comprise of 80 members, six elected from each province through a system of proportional representation, based on the votes cast for candidates representing political parties in the National Assembly elections and selected from lists based on the “zebra” system in which “male and female candidates are listed alternatively, every list being headed by a female candidate.”
The remaining seats will be held by 18 traditional chiefs – the President and Deputy of the Chiefs Council, plus two each from the eight non-metropolitan provinces elected by the provincial assembly of chiefs.
Two Senate seats are designated for representatives of people with disabilities, with the method of election to be defined under the electoral law.
Citizen rights have been broadened through a stronger chapter on the Declaration of Rights. The rights provided for are the rights to life, labour, education, water, shelter, environmental rights, freedom of expression and the media, and marriage except for same-sex marriages.
The new Constitution recognizes 16 official languages – Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, and sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa. Previously only three languages were recognized – English, Ndebele and Shona.
The referendum is the culmination of a long process of consultations that started nearly four years ago with the appointment in April 2009 of an inter-party parliamentary committee that drove the drafting process.
Following several delays, the Constitution Parliamentary Select Committee (COPAC) produced a final draft Constitution in January that was endorsed by the country’s three main political parties.
The process leading to the referendum saw the final draft Constitution being tabled in Parliament where it was debated and endorsed before it was gazetted by President Robert Mugabe in February.
Both of the main political parties, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) and the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations, are urging their members to vote “Yes” in the referendum.
Any Zimbabwean citizen aged 18 years and above can vote in the referendum, regardless of whether they are registered voters or not.
Voters will be able to cast their ballots in any constituency, regardless of where they live.
According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, a total of 9,449 polling stations will be established around the country for the referendum.
If approved in the referendum, the new Constitution will go back to Parliament for approval and can be used in the holding of general elections later this year. The actual date of elections will be announced after the referendum. Under the current Constitution, the duration of this Parliament ends on 29 June.
Zimbabwe has had an “inclusive government” made up of the three main political parties since February 2009, following the Global Political Agreement (GPA) signed by Zanu PF and the two MDC formations on 15 September 2008.
Zimbabwe last went to the polls in March 2008, when the opposition marginally won more seats in Parliament while Zanu-PF won the popular vote and won the Presidency in a run-off in June.
The disputed polls resulted in the GPA, a Southern African Development Community (SADC)-brokered agreement for an inclusive government involving the three main parties.
SADC has dispatched a large election observer mission to monitor the referendum, with about 100 observers from SADC member states.
The SADC election observer mission, led by the Foreign Minister of the United Republic of Tanzania, Bernard Membe, was launched in Harare on 10 March.
“My duty is to appeal to Zimbabweans to turn out in huge numbers to make their decisions in the referendum set for 16 March,” Membe said at launch of the observer mission.
SADC executive secretary, Tomaz Salomão concurred, saying “the decision to have a peaceful and democratic vote lies in the hands of Zimbabweans.”
As per tradition, the mission will monitor the electoral process in three phases through the pre-referendum, the referendum and the post-referendum period.
After the referendum, it will release a draft report on how the process was conducted, with a final report coming later. This is in line with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, which encourage member states to promote common political values and systems.