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Africa

Zimbabwe votes in constitutional referendum

Zimbabweans are voting in a referendum on a draft constitution, which will pave the way for elections in July. Both of the country’s main political parties support the draft constitution.

The polls opened in Zimbabwe's constitutional referendum on Saturday, with rights groups criticizing the vote as rushed.

The Southern African nation's election body has printed 12 million ballots for the referendum. Although Zimbabwe has only 6.6 million registered voters, anyone over the age of 18 with valid identification is eligible to vote in the referendum.

The proposed constitution limits presidential powers and sets a two-term limit on the president, while granting greater powers to parliament.

Zimbabweans vote on reformed constitution

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 also established a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission to deal with past violence and human rights violations.

Mugabe could return to power

But the constitution would not prevent President Robert Mugabe from running for another two terms in office. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, since the country won its independence in 1980 through a guerrilla war against a white-controlled government.

His ZANU-PF party currently rules in a coalition government with his main rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The prime minister's Movement for Democratic Change Party was the first group to challenge Mugabe's one-party rule in 1999. The rivals were forced into a coalition government in the aftermath of a bloody presidential run-off election in 2008.

Both parties' support the draft constitution, making its passage likely.

‘Concerns and questions'

The rights group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) criticized the constitutional referendum as 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 release 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."

slk/hc (AP, AFP)

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