Zim: Hard-fought 'yes' campaign fails to capture interest of voters
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After four years of bitter fighting, $100-million spent and many moments of doubt and fear, Zimbabweans on Saturday will finally have their chance to vote for a new Constitution.
With all parties campaigning for a "yes" vote, challenged only by a feeble "no" campaign, the Constitution is likely to be voted through on a low turnout.
Ahead of the vote, there is little public excitement, with the dominant sentiment being relief rather than enthusiasm.
The bid to stop the referendum by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a pressure group that has long campaigned against the process, has been dismissed in the courts and largely ignored by voters.
"Judging from an assessment of the attendance of people in the Copac [select parliamentary committee] campaign meetings, the referendum will be marred by apathy and a low turnout and, by any standard, will be a sign to politicians that the people of Zimbabwe are not happy," said assembly spokesperson Blessing Vava.
However, Paul Mangwana, one of the three co-chairs of Copac, said he expected a good turnout as voters responded to the "Vote Yes" campaign, which has been cranked up over the past week. A youth rally was expected in central Harare on Friday in a late attempt to whip up young people's interest.
Change in power
This poll is in stark contrast to the constitutional referendum in 2000, which gave President Robert Mugabe his first electoral defeat and announced the arrival of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a serious threat to his rule.
That year, various interests – the MDC, white farmers, the assembly and other groups – united against the draft, mounting a strong campaign that resulted in 1.3-million people voting, with the "no" vote winning by 54.7% to 45.3%.
Things have changed since then.The MDC is now in power alongside Zanu-PF and the two opponents are campaigning on the same side, whereas the assembly, once a potent coalition of rights groups, has been pushed to the margins.
Few voters who voted in 2000 actually read the draft and few have read this one either. In both cases, voters have simply gone along with the directions of their party leaders.
Voters are also disillusioned because they have had much less time this time round to study the draft, which has reached only a few. Copac printed only 90 000 copies of the draft Constitution for distribution throughout the country.
Despite the expected low turnout, the referendum is a turning point in Zimbabwe's search for reform. Although Zimbabweans will be happy that the long process is finally over, there will be some anxiety as this vote opens the way for elections.
The referendum is a double-edged sword: it finally rids the country of an old charter, amended 19 times, but it also signals the start of a new election campaign.
As soon as the Constitution is passed, electoral laws will have to be amended to bring them into line with the new supreme law, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said this week.
That process would probably usher in another long period of uncertainty, shown by Tsvangirai's response when asked by reporters when the elections would be held after the referendum.
"It could be July, it could be June. It will depend on the various stages [of electoral reforms]," Tsvangirai said, before saying: "Perhaps July, or August. It is impossible to predict."
Although there is a clear lack of interest, the constitutional referendum will be a victory of sorts in a process that seemed unlikely ever to reach this point.
At the first "all-stakeholder" conference on the Constitution in 2009, War Veterans Association leader Joseph Chinotimba danced on top of a desk, singing loudly and rallying his militants.
Clearly organised and deliberate, they caused such a riot that the crucial meeting had to be abandoned, and police called in to clear 4 500 people from the conference centre.
There were rows on issues as wide-ranging as gay rights, presidential terms and the influence of the military.
And, just when it seemed that progress was being made, Zanu-PF prodded the MDC to the edge by claiming that it wanted to make more than 200 amendments to a draft already agreed by all parties.
The MDC threatened to withdraw and President Jacob Zuma's team, on behalf of the Southern Africa Development Community, made countless trips to Zimbabwe to mediate.
Zimbabweans will also be happy finally to see the end of a process that has taken attention away from the economy.
While all the bickering has gone on, the promise of economic recovery in the first years of unity government has faded, replaced with the stark reality of worsening service delivery and company closures.
The worsening manufacturing environment was confirmed by the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries recently, which said that capacity utilisation for the sector in 2012 remained subdued at 44.2%.
Huge number of ballots, small turnout
About 12-million ballots have been printed and distributed to 9 449 polling stations across the country.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission expects a turn-out of about six million voters. The commission's acting chairperson, Joyce Kazembe, said the large number of ballots are needed because it is not known how many voters will turn up at a particular station as the voting is not based on constituencies.
Voting takes one day. Vote counting starts at each polling station as soon as it closes at 7pm.
According to the law, the results must be released within five days. Early results would be a huge victory for the commission, whose credibility was shredded in 2008 after the vote count came in a trickle, with the final tally for the presidential vote not released until close to a month later.
This week, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said he believed "the shenanigans" of 2008 would not be repeated. "There was so much interference in the last elections. We want to avoid that."
The commission will be relieved that it does not have to deal with some of the more controversial issues that have blighted previous polls. Constituency boundaries will not be a factor in the referendum as anyone can vote at any polling station in the country. Voters need only produce an identity document. The voters' roll, which the MDC and other electoral observer groups have said needs an overhaul, is not needed.
Although political parties may observe counting, they are not allowed to announce the results.
Nevertheless, many civic groups have threatened to boycott the referendum in protest over the barring of some observer organisations. ZimRights, one of the country's biggest civic groups, has been refused accreditation because its leaders are accused of fraudulently obtaining copies of the voters' roll.