March poll unlikely in Zimbabwe
President Robert Mugabe is unlikely to carry out his threat to make a unilateral call for elections in March because the new Constitution, a prerequisite for the poll, remains bogged down by unresolved disputes and a pending referendum.
Delays in staging the referendum have thrown Mugabe's plan for early elections into jeopardy, with rumours in political circles that elections may only be held in June.
A Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday, Race Against Time: The Need for Legal and Institutional Reforms Ahead of Zimbabwe's Elections, said Zimbabwe's unity government has not made the reforms necessary for holding a credible election and that holding elections in March could result in "widespread human rights violations".
An official in Zanu-PF and the co-chairperson of the constitutional parliamentary committee, Paul Mangwana, said this week that there are still six outstanding constitutional disputes between his party and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations.
The proposed referendum on the Constitution can only take place after consensus is reached on these issues. Mangwana remained upbeat: "We started off with 30 (sticking points) but just a handful remain. We are optimistic that these will be ironed out in the coming weeks and that the referendum will happen any time before March."
Mugabe is away in the Far East on his annual holiday, leaving a leadership vacuum in Zanu-PF, which cannot adopt a position on the outstanding issues without his input. He is expected back at the end of the month, and Zanu-PF's Politburo is set to meet in the first week of February to deliberate on the constitution-making process and elections.
The outstanding issues are the devolution of power, the creation of a national prosecuting authority, scaling down the executive's authority, the formation of a national peace and reconciliation commission, and the adoption of running mates in the next election.
Under the running mates clause, Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai would have to pick individuals to stand alongside them in the elections. The running mate would automatically assume the post of deputy president in the event of a victory.
Zanu-PF is opposed to the proposal, reportedly seeing it as a potential avenue for an internal succession battle to spill over on to the election stage. Deputy president Joice Mujuru and Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa have been locked up in a decade-long fight to succeed Mugabe.
This week, Zanu-PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo restated the party's strong opposition to the devolution of power. Several provinces backed the devolution proposal during the constitutional outreach exercise.
"It's unimaginable to have devolution. Zimbabwe is too small a country to be divided," said Gumbo.
Political observers said his stance reflects the dominance of political parties at the expense of the views ordinary people expressed during the outreach exercise.
Eldred Masunungure, a political analyst, said "fatigue" had set in among voters as a result of the protracted fight over the Constitution between Zanu-PF and the MDC.
"The people just want the constitution-making process to finish ... they're looking forward to seeing the principals come up with a compromise this year. If that happens, everything else will fall in place – the referendum and the elections," he said.
The constitution-making process was initially supposed to take 18 months, but has taken more than three years because of bickering among political parties.
Douglas Mwonzora, an MDC official and a representative of the party in the constitutional parliamentary committee, expressed optimism that a breakthrough would be reached this week, when the committee was scheduled to make its presentation to the cabinet committee.
"We agreed on suggestions to unlock all the issues except the one on running mates," said Mwonzora.
Meanwhile, political observers say they expect Mugabe to back down on his earlier insistence that polling should be staged under the old Lancaster House Agreement of 1980.
He threatened to go this route if the constitutional parliamentary committee failed to incorporate Zanu-PF's demands in the Constitution.
John Makumbe, a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said Mugabe was shrewd enough not to anger regional and continental blocs by being belligerent.
"If Mugabe calls for elections under the old Constitution it will produce the same result as the 2008 elections. The two MDC formations, the Southern African Development Community and the African Union would never accept such a scenario."