Zimbabweans Vote on New Constitution Before Elections

Zimbabweans voted today in a referendum on a new constitution that paves the way for elections to be held later this year.

Both President Robert Mugabe, who’s ruled the southern African nation since independence from the U.K. 33 years ago, and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, 61, are calling for a yes vote, indicating the constitution will probably be approved. The two rivals have shared power in a coalition government since 2009 following disputed elections that international observers said were marred by violence that killed as many as 200 people.

Polling stations closed at 7 p.m. Counting would begin tonight and final results will be announced within five days, Rita Makarau, chairwoman of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, told reporters today in Harare, the capital. Voter turnout increased during the day following a slow start, she said.

“I voted for a yes to support what is taking place in our country and for the future of our country,” Ngonidzashe Mahove, a 33-year-old security guard, said in an interview at a voting station in Mbare, a township in the capital, Harare. “This is a momentous occasion for myself and the future.”

The referendum was a requirement of the agreement mediated by the 15-nation Southern African Development Community that ended the post-election crisis. It led to the establishment of the coalition government between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Tsvangirai.

‘Historical Steps’

“We have just exercised one of the most historical steps since the beginning of the constitutional journey,” Tsvangirai told reporters at a polling station in Chitungwiza, 25 kilometers south of Harare. “Today, those who have died or lost their lives, rest in peace because this is the most important journey we have been fighting for.”

Tendai Biti, MDC’s secretary general and the country’s finance minister said some incidents of violence occurred in Harare, Kariba and Bindura, though the ZEC said there were none reported. He told reporters that nine party members were assaulted in Mbare for putting up posters.

The country’s constitution restricts the president to two five-year terms and requires a two-thirds vote by members of parliament to approve a state of emergency.

Land Seizures

If Mugabe, 89, wins the presidential vote, he could extend his rule for another decade because the new constitution’s limit isn’t retroactive. Western nations and international human-rights groups have accused Mugabe of rigging elections since 2000 and brutalizing his opponents to cling to power.

“We shall not brook with anyone who interferes in our country and those who want to encroach in our country,” Mugabe said after voting at Mhofu primary school in Highfield, a suburb in Harare. “We have a right to defend ourselves. We shall not brook with those people who want to steal our country, our natural resources, minerals.”

Mugabe’s program of land seizures from white farmers in 2000 plunged the economy into a decade-long recession, slashing exports of tobacco, once Zimbabwe’s biggest export, and turning the country into an importer of its staple food, corn.

Since then, he has targeted mining companies in a nation that holds 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.

Voter Turnout

Provisions on land ownership in the new constitution mean white-run commercial farms won’t be returned to their former owners.

The National Constitutional Assembly, a pro-democracy group, has urged voters to reject the charter, saying it still concentrates too much power in the presidency.

Aloise Chaumba, an observer with the Harare-based Election Resource Centre, said voter turnout was probably low.

The campaign to vote against the constitution “may make a difference in towns, but not in the rural areas,” Chaumba said. “The parties agree, so many will wonder if there’s any point in voting.”

Biti said details were still unclear on the disappearance of Samson Magumura, the MDC’s chairman for Headlands, who was either arrested or kidnapped by armed men. Charity Charamba, a police spokeswoman, denied there was an abduction, adding that a man was arrested in Headlands for attempted murder.