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Elections

Polling closes in crucial Zimbabwean referendum

Voting has closed in Zimbabwe's constitutional referendum. But, the country's Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, accused security forces of violence and intimidation against voters.

Polling has closed in Zimbabwe's crucial vote for a new constitution.

Zimbabwe's electoral commission (ZEC) deputy spokesperson, Joyce Kazembe, said results of Saturday's ballot could possibly be announced as early as Monday.

The rights group, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), criticized the constitutional referendum as being rushed.

"Essentially three weeks were provided to disseminate, publicize and educate the nation on the contents of a voluminous and intricate legal document," ZLHR said in a statement on the eve of the vote.

"Fast-tracking adoption of the draft by parliament without substantive debate and the subsequent fast-track gazetting of the draft and referendum dates after such long delays in the earlier stages raises concerns and questions around the democratic and popular nature of the debate and scrutiny of the draft."

The South African nation's election body printed 12 million ballots for the referendum, even though Zimbabwe only has 6.6 million registered voters.

Election monitors said printed copies were inadequate in two main local languages, as many rural Zimbabweans do not speak English. Monitors also noted only 200 Braille ballot papers were produced for the country's 40,000 blind people.

New constitution

With both main political parties backing the draft text, it is expected Zimbabweans will support the referendum, which would see the introduction of a limit to presidential terms, an increase in parliamentary powers and set elections to decide if the country's current president, 89-year-old Robert Mugabe, extends his three-decade rule of the African nation.

Zimbabwe votes for constitutional reform

If accepted, the new constitution would set a maximum of two five-year terms for the president, beginning with the upcoming election in the second half of this year. The limit, however, will not apply retrospectively, so Mugabe could rule for another two terms.

The document also buttresses Zimbabwe's bill of rights, protecting people from “torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment.” A new Constitutional Court, with powers above the existing Supreme Court, would enforce those protections. The constitution would also establish a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission to deal with past violence and human rights violations.

School teacher, Petronella Dzikiti, said outside the polling station in Chitungwiza near the capital, Harare, she voted in favor of the constitutional change, in part, because it would see the introduction of presidential term limits.

"We don't want a situation like we have today, when some of us knew one leader as a child who remains there when we are grown-ups."

Urgent call issued

On Saturday, Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, called for an urgent summit of southern African leaders to ensure the country's July elections are free and fair.

As Zimbabweans voted on a new text for the country's constitution, Tsvangirai issued a statement voicing his concern about alleged violence and intimidation by security forces.

The call follows allegations made by members of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party (MDC) they were assaulted by Mugabe supporters, as they were putting up posters in the capital on Friday.

"The attacks are a clear testimony that ZANU-PF wants to embark on acts of violence," said MDC spokesperson Dougal Mwonzora, referring to Mugabe's party.

Two of the seven MDC members were seriously wounded in the attack. Parliament candidate Sten Zvorwadza was struck in the neck with a bottle and punched, Mwonzora alleged.

jlw/jr (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)

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