Heat on to review Zim Constitution

Zimbabwe is peparing for a referendum and general elections in quick succession, but there are concerns that there is insufficient time and funding to run them properly. (AFP)

Zimbabwe is peparing for a referendum and general elections in quick succession, but there are concerns that there is insufficient time and funding to run them properly. (AFP)

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 itself 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 that they are risking the credibility of the ­country's election 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 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 and 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, possibly suggesting voters would vote anyway 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."

Though admitting funding would be the biggest worry, Tsvangirai said: "We will stick to the 16th of March for the referendum, whatever limitations there are."

A credible vote
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 the ZEC will run since it was set up in 2010, and the commission is eager to prove it can efficiently run elections. 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 had also 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 electoral commission 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 recruit the thousands of staff needed to act as polling officers. Thousands of vehicles will have to be hired and the commission also has to map out polling stations across the country in time and print ballots.

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