President Robert Mugabe is testing his powers by letting people vote on a new constitution. It should pave the way for fair and free elections and limit the power of the president. This could be a step towards democracy.
Robert Mugabe knows how to enjoy power. In early March, Africa's long serving president celebrated his 89th birthday with an 89 pound cake and beef steaks and roasts from 89 cattle. He lives in luxury while the country is mired in an economic crisis. The poverty level is high and the treasury is empty. The country cannot even afford to fund its own referendum planned for March 16. Instead, international donors have been asked to step in.
Demands for a new constitution
It seems like the constitution project is a personal matter for Mugabe. "Let me say something about the draft constitution. There is nothing wrong with it, nothing at all," Mugabe said while speaking to supporters of his ZANU-PF party. "Let's vote for it, and go to the elections. We will win these elections!" The draft constitution is also supported by Mugabe's coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC party. The supporters of the two politicians were involved in violent clashes after the disputed 2008 elections. Following that bloody violence, Mugabe and Tsvangirai bowed to pressure from outside and agreed to form a coalition government. Constitutional reform is one of the major demands of the international community.
More power for women, less for the president?
Fear of new violence overshadows the referendum. Zimbabwe took three years to come up with a draft constitution. A 115-page document was only released in early February, giving voters little time to read and digest it before they vote.
University graduate Yvonne Mashayamombe says she will vote for the new constitution. "Women have much to gain with this constitution," she told DW. "There will be a gender commission, ensuring that women are represented at all levels." If approved, the new constitution will allow at least 60 of the 150 seats in Parliament to be reserved for women. It will also reduce the power of the president. His influence on the intelligence services and the military will be limited, his immunity will be lifted and presidential office terms would be limited to two five-year periods. However Mugabe's previous years in office would not be taken into account. That means he could theoretically rule until he is 99 years old.
Civil rights activist Lovemore Madhuku, who is also the chairman of the Independent National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), has been fighting for over 15 years for a new constitution and for new limitations on the power of the president. "It's no secret that Mugabe previously failed to lead our country because he had no reason to be accountable," Madhuku told DW. He says the new constitution will do little to curb the president's power. He has called on Zimbabweans to boycott the referendum. Cousin Zilala of Amnesty International shares Madhuku's concerns. "We hope that the government takes the opportunity to make a progressive step and abolish the death penalty. Two thirds of the world has already done that." Zimbabwe has recently appointed a hangman, a position which since 2005 was vacant. Now dozens of convicts in prisons fear they will be executed.
Watching Zimbabwe closely
The Zimbabwean government has banned western election observers from observing both the referendum and the upcoming elections. Nevertheless, Europe is watching closely. In February the European Union eased its sanctions against Zimbabwe and announced it would abolish them if the country holds fair and free elections. "The draft constitution was only an intermediate step, which the EU and the US see as a central indicator of the willingness to reform and cooperate by Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF party," says Christian von Soest, Africa expert at the GIGA Institute in Hamburg. The EU considers its move to ease sanctions as a reward, he says, while it continues to uphold travel restrictions and accounts remain frozen.
A new president?
Observers expect that people will vote in favor of the new constitution. What is less clear is Robert Mugabe's political future. "Some people say that in certain circumstances, he would be ready to retire," says Christian von Soest. "The question is, what kind of a golden bridge would be built for him to leave in a dignified manner." Zimbabwe is expecting to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in mid-July. The March 16 referendum will help lay the course for the country's future direction - with or without Mugabe.