A surprisingly peaceful constitutional conference means that a national referendum is imminent, writes Jason Moyo.
A key conference on a new constitution for Zimbabwe this week moved the country a step closer to elections, despite political parties failing to bridge their differences over a variety of proposed reforms.
The constitutional-reform process had been hit by so much turmoil in recent months that the fact that the conference was held at all – in peace and with delegates debating openly – has been seen as a major success.
The last all-stakeholders' conference, in 2009, ended with Zanu-PF militants dancing on tables and the police driving out more than 4 000 brawling delegates from the venue.
This week, at the opening ceremony, Prime Minister and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai playfully pulled his bitter rival, President Robert Mugabe, by the arm, coaxing him a dance as Oliver Mtukudzi played a song urging peace in the search for a new constitution. At the podium, leaders traded banter as their supporters cheered.
The conference was attended by more than 1 000 delegates drawn from political parties and pressure groups. The delegates were split into various committees that pored over each and every section of the draft constitution.
There was vibrant and frank debate, although differences remained over key reforms: proposals to limit the president's powers, a provision compelling presidential candidates to name running mates, dual citizenship, a constitutional court and greater administrative autonomy for provinces.
At the start of the meeting, Mugabe, who has recently abandoned his trademark fiery speeches for a more conciliatory tone, called for peace. "We have certainly matured politically" since that first chaotic conference in 2009, he said.
Mugabe's militants had put an end to discussions after drowning out speakers with their party chants that year. This time, said Mugabe, there would be no such "primitive" behaviour. "Surely, settling things through fisticuffs instead of through dialogue and discussion is primitive."
Although many have applauded the conduct of the conference delegates there are doubts that the public's views will be included in the draft, which will now be taken to Parliament before being put to a referendum.
Mugabe promised that there was "no intention whatsoever, at least on my part, to tamper or meddle with the people's views".
However, pressure groups are not sure their views will count. "There is no way we are going to know if our recommendations are going to be considered," said McDonald Lewanika of the Crisis in Zimbabwe group.
Will of the people
The Election Resource Centre, an elections monitoring group, said it hoped the final document would "adequately capture the views and concerns raised" and that "political leaders would respect the will of the people".
Tsvangirai also fears progress will be undone by a section of hard-core Mugabe loyalists, who have come out over recent weeks to declare once again that the military will never accept a Mugabe defeat.
"This exercise underpins our belief in constitutionalism and the rule of law," he said. "We cannot, therefore, be in contradiction with ourselves by preaching a coup or a military subversion of the people's will."
For Mugabe, the constitution is a gateway to the election he craves. He described the unity government as "an unholy trinity that has done some holy things".
Lindiwe Zulu, President Jacob Zuma's international adviser and a member of his mediation team in Zimbabwe, said she was impressed by how the conference was conducted and that it would set the country on the path to free and fair elections.