Zimbabwe Referendum Paves Way for Mugabe-Tsvangirai Fight

Zimbabweans vote in a referendum on a new constitution tomorrow that sets the stage for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to renew his bid to end President Robert Mugabe’s 33-year rule in elections later this year.

The constitution will probably win approval since both Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change back a yes vote. The two rivals have shared power in a coalition government since 2009 following disputed elections in the southern African nation that international observers said were marred by violence that killed as many as 200 people.

“It’s the first step and potentially a crucial moment leading to the elections which follow,” Yvette Babb, an analyst with Standard Bank Group Ltd., said by phone from Johannesburg on March 12.

Mugabe, 89, has ruled Zimbabwe following independence from the U.K. in 1980 and is accused by western nations and international human-rights groups of rigging elections since 2000 and brutalizing his opponents to cling to power. Victory in the next vote will allow him another decade in power because the new constitutional limit of two presidential five-year terms isn’t retroactive.

Tsvangirai, 61, has competed in a series of elections against Mugabe since 2000.

The MDC failed to win major concessions during negotiations on the constitution, and its adoption is unlikely to mark a significant change in the balance of power, Susan Booysen, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg, said by phone yesterday.

Election Result

“The election result is probably a foregone conclusion, with ZANU-PF probably stepping out as the winner,” she said. “We see a continued term for Robert Mugabe.”

The referendum was a requirement of the agreement mediated by the 15-nation Southern African Development Community that ended the post-election crisis and led to the establishment of the coalition government.

The government is seeking donor support to pay for the elections, which may cost $132 million and may be held as early as July, Finance Minister Tendai Biti told reporters in Harare, the capital, on March 11.

Constitutional Guarantees

Under the new constitution, parliament can remove the president if he or she is found guilty of serious misconduct, violates the constitution, fails to uphold it, or is physically or mentally incapacitated, by a two-thirds vote of its membership. If the president dies, the first vice president will take the position for the remainder of the term.

While the president has the power to declare a state of emergency, parliament must approve or revoke it after 14 days.

The constitution also guarantees Zimbabweans freedom from torture or degrading treatment and bans detention without trial. The security forces are barred from being members of a political party or group.

Constitutional provisions on land ownership mean white-run commercial farms, seized since 2000 by militants with Mugabe’s backing and given to mainly black subsistence farmers, will not be returned to their former owners.

“The government of Zimbabwe has no obligation to pay compensation for agricultural land compulsorily acquired for resettlement,” according to the constitution, which says the former colonial power has the responsibility to make payment.

Land Seizures

The seizures slashed exports of tobacco, once Zimbabwe’s biggest export, and roses, and turned the country into an importer of its staple food, corn.

The unity deal helped to boost the economy, which contracted 40 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to the International Monetary Fund. Biti, who’s the secretary-general of the MDC, expects growth of 5 percent this year from about 4.5 percent in 2012.

Zimbabwe abandoned its currency in Feb. 2009 after inflation accelerated to an estimated 500 billion percent in 2008, according to the IMF. The country uses a range of currencies including U.S. dollars, the British pound, the South African rand, the euro and the Botswana pula.

The economic turnaround has helped ZANU-PF, according to David Monyae, a Johannesburg-based independent analyst.

“They’ve used the period of the inclusive government to re-invent themselves, while at the same time the economy is improving and agriculture has rebounded,” he said in a telephone interview. “ZANU is in a strong position.”

Platinum Mines

Following the state-backed confiscation of land, Mugabe has targeted mining companies in Zimbabwe, which has the world’s second-biggest platinum and chrome deposits after South Africa and also has reserves of coal, diamonds and gold.

The government is forcing Johannesburg-based Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd. to cede 51 percent of its unit, Zimplats Holdings Ltd., to the state and black Zimbabweans under an indigenization law passed in 2007.

While Mugabe promised peaceful elections during celebrations of his birthday held this month in the mining town of Bindura, rights groups have complained of a crackdown on dissent in the days before the referendum.

An alliance of 70 Zimbabwean rights groups wrote a letter to Mugabe saying that some of their members were barred from observing the referendum.

London-Based Amnesty International said today that the authorities have harassed rights organizations and banned the use of short-wave radios on Feb. 19.

“This referendum is a litmus paper for the elections that will be held later this year,” Noel Kututwa, Amnesty’s southern Africa director, said in the statement. “Rather than using it as a practice run for suppression and intimidation, the government must embrace it as an opportunity to reinforce respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

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