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Friday, 11 February, 2000, 16:42 GMT
President Mugabe's referendum test

Zimbabweans voted in a referendum to decide whether to adopt a new constitution. Joseph Winter looks at the controversy surrounding the proposals.

Those who wrote Zimbabwe's draft constitution say it is the embodiment of true democracy, marrying presidential and parliamentary systems, and first-past-the-post with proportional representation.

Critics call it a massive fraud, whose aim is to fool the people while in reality, nothing changes.

New constitution a magnanimous gesture
President Mugabe
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change boycotted the process from the start, saying those who drafted the constitution were hand-picked by President Robert Mugabe to do his bidding. And in particular to ensure that Zimbabwe retained a presidential system.

Mr Mugabe says that agreeing to rewrite the constitution was a "magnanimous gesture" to the people and warns that if it is rejected in the referendum, his party Zanu-PF would be quite happy to continue with the old constitution, which lets the president do pretty much as he pleases.

Presidential powers

When the constitution-writers toured the country, asking people how they wanted to be governed, they were deafened by the cries of: "The president's powers must be reduced. His unchecked mistakes have ruined our economy."

And so a prime minister will be created who is head of government . The president appoints him (or maybe in the distant future, her) but he must be able to command a majority in parliament.

President's mistakes have ruined our economy
Government opponents
Jonathan Moyo, director of the "Yes" campaign, says this meets the people's demands for checks and balances.

However, Welshman Ncube from the MDC denies this, arguing that in effect, the President is still in charge, as in, for example, the Russian system. He claims that the people's views were ignored because they clashed with the interests of Mr Mugabe, who wants to stay in power.

Cosmetic change?

The introduction of Independent Commissions to run elections and fight corruption is apparently a great leap forward for Zimbabwe.

Jonathan Moyo Jonathan Moyo: Draft constitution safeguards democracy
No, say the critics - it is only a cosmetic change. The commissions are appointed by the president and so cannot be "independent". They worry that elections will still be rigged and that Zanu-PF cronies will not be investigated, let alone prosecuted.

Possibly the real reason why Robert Mugabe agreed to this whole process is revealed in clause 57. His long-time ambition is to give land owned by white farmers to poor black families, saying white colonialists stole it in the first place.

He has been handicapped by the current constitution which says the farmers must be compensated.


Zimbabwe does not have the many millions of US dollars this requires and donors have refused to support the programme of land reform. If passed, clause 57 removes the obligation to pay compensation.

Farm worker Black employees work for white farmers
This will undoubtedly win lots of votes, especially in rural areas but may lead to productive, hard currency-earning farms being seized and given to ministerial "telephone-farmers" with disastrous consequences for the already straitened economy.

Despite the blanket media coverage given to the "Yes" campaign, many people remain ignorant about the constitution and so will not bother voting. It is over 100 pages long and few ordinary people will take the time to wade through the thick swamp of legalese.

The versions in local languages have not made it out to rural areas where the majority of people live and where they are most needed.

Party lines

Many of those who will vote will do so on party lines - Zanu-PF supporters will vote "Yes", the opposition "No".

The government says a "no" vote would mean sticking with the present constitution, with all its defects. The MDC calls this "a scare tactic" and says a "no" vote would mean writing a better document than the one currently on offer.

President Mugabe President Mugabe has increased presidential powers
If approved, Mr Mugabe insists that parliamentary elections will be held in mid-April and has told civil servants to work "48 hours a day".

To introduce a brand new constitution, an element of proportional representation, an upper house of parliament, the electoral commission and all the other changes in just two months, they would have to be super-human.

Why the rush?

"To keep with tradition" says the president.

"To make it easier to hoodwink the people", retort his opponents.

There is very little agreement in Zimbabwean politics.
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See also:
01 Feb 00 |  Africa
Zimbabwe's first real opposition party?
19 Nov 99 |  Africa
Zimbabwe constitution: Just a bit of paper?
07 Jan 00 |  Africa
Analysis: Zimbabwe's land troubles
29 Dec 99 |  Africa
Referendum delays Zimbabwe elections
01 Jul 99 |  Zimbabwe
Mugabe's long shadow

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