Zimbabwe's electoral commission is completely unprepared for the upcoming referendum, say insiders.
It has taken more than three years for Zimbabwean politicians to agree on a draft constitution, but voters now only have three weeks to study it ahead of next month's referendum.
As further evidence of how unprepared the government is, officials have announced that private businesses will, over the next few weeks, be squeezed for the cash that is needed to run the poll.
Donors are staying away and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) seems largely unprepared, but critics say the country's leaders are so eager to pave the way for elections they are risking the credibility of the country's poll machinery by rushing the referendum.
Less than a month before the March 16 referendum, election observers say there is not enough time to get the draft constitution out to voters. The biggest hurdle is finding the money, over just a few weeks, to fund the referendum.
Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara says the government needs $20-million for the referendum and $80-million for the election itself.
"The biggest part of the internal effort is going to be borrowing from the private sector; from the mining companies, the banks, the cellphone companies."
In return for the cash, companies would get tax exemptions and treasury bills. That is a promise unlikely to win over businesses, which have little trust in the government's ability to pay its debts.
It also raises the prospect of conflict between big business and the government, as a desperate government is likely to force companies into lending it the funds. There was no immediate comment from large business groups on the matter.
The to-do list is long for the constitution select committee and the ZEC. This week, the committee's Jessie Majome announced that 90 000 copies of the draft constitution had been printed, to be shared by millions of voters in more than 200 constituencies countrywide.
About 20 000 copies were to be printed in 10 local languages, 500 more would be in braille, while audio copies would also be made.
None of these were available by the middle of this week. Members of Parliament said they had each been given just 20 copies of the draft for distribution to their constituencies.
The draft was still being distributed to non-governmental organisations, business groups, churches and rural authorities such as district administrators and chiefs.
Still, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai insisted it did not matter how long voters were given, implying perhaps that voters would vote as directed by their parties.
"It doesn't matter how many months you give," Tsvangirai told reporters. "If you have not already made a decision, I am sure that even if you are given 10 months you will never arrive at any decision. One month is sufficient."
While admitting funding would be the biggest worry, Tsvangirai said: "We will stick to the 16th of March for the referendum, whatever limitations there are."
There is little excitement over the referendum, and election observer groups fear a poorly organised vote will worsen apathy.
"The date raises questions about the ZEC having sufficient time to organise a credible referendum consistent with the laws of Zimbabwe , as well as the Southern African Development Community and international principles and guidelines governing the conduct of democratic elections," elections observer group Zimbabwe Election Support Network said.
This will be the first poll that the ZEC will run since it was set up in 2010, and the commission is eager to prove it can run elections efficiently. But the short deadline threatens its credibility. The ZEC had previously said it needed 60 days to hold an election, but its officials admit they too had been caught by surprise.
"To handicap the ZEC by requiring it to conduct an acceptable referendum exercise in less than half the time it has said it needs, is to run the risk of a botched process – and to imperil the chances of an election result that will be widely accepted later in the year," legal watchdog Veritas said this week.
The ZEC has been without a substantive head after Simpson Mutambanengwe resigned because of ill health. Judge Rita Makarau was this week appointed as the ZEC's new chair.
But legal experts have said that she has not had enough time in office to prepare a credible vote.
ZEC officials admit privately that they will struggle to raise the thousands of staff needed to act as polling officers. Civil servants are usually relied upon to do the task, but many of them have yet to be paid for their role in the census last year, and they are reluctant to take up the job.
Thousands of vehicles will have to be hired, but no funding is available. The commission also has to map out polling stations across the country in time, and print ballots.
Disorganistion brings fairness of elections into doubt
The credibility of Zimbabwe's upcoming election faces a litmus test as the voter registration exercise that began last month faces a financial squeeze and has been marred by reports of disorganisation.
The country will hold elections in July, after the referendum on the Constitution on March 16.
The voters' roll is a tightly contested platform between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and is yet to be cleaned up owing to the unavailability of funds.
Media reports that the voters' roll, which is tightly controlled by Tobaiwa Mudede, an ally of President Robert Mugabe, contains the names of deceased persons have persisted in the past elections with allegations by the MDC that Mudede has used the roll to boost Zanu-PF's winning margins in the past.
"Everything is at a standstill at the moment as we are waiting for the funds from the treasury to bankroll the electoral processes, attention is on the referendum and that explains the slow pace on the election side of things", said Joyce Kazembe, who was the acting chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) until the appointment of Rita Makarau this week.
Thabani Moyo, the director of the Bulawayo Agenda, said village heads in Lupane were telling people under their jurisdiction that they would only register those who had Zanu-PF party membership cards.
"In Lupane, traditional leaders say voter registration is not a national process, but a party- driven process, so people are told to go to their parties and register," said Moyo.
In Hwange and Manicaland, allegations have surfaced in media reports that residents are being required to pay a registration fee of $2 at centres before they are allowed to register. Registration centres are also allegedly not open every day.
The MDC has also taken issue with the ZEC over the voter registration exercise not being publicised enough, arguing it is a deliberate tactic to avoid detection of irregularities in the voters' roll.
MDC legislator for Bulawayo East, Tabitha Khumalo, said Zanu-PF is not cleaning the voters' roll as it realises it will not win the poll.
Political analyst Dumisani Nkomo said the ZEC needed to get "on top of the situation" as a matter of urgency and deal with the disorganisation.
Meanwhile, the constitutional parliamentary committee has rolled out publicity awareness campaigns for the draft Constitution.
It started deploying teams this week with 90 000 copies of the draft Constitution. Its co-chairperson, Douglas Mwonzora, said it would use local government structures to distribute the documents. –Ray Ndlovu