Zimbabweans vote Saturday on a new constitution after decades of using a charter given to them by former colonial power Britain. Both sides of the political spectrum say they want the proposed constitution to pass, and have been actively campaigning for it. But some voters and Zimbabwean civic groups says the charter does not represent the wishes of ordinary people.
The signs are hard to miss in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
VOTE YES, blare billboards that show the proposed constitution.
At schools in the capital, uniformed election workers set up the polling places.
The constitution’s supporters are casting the document as a reward for years of hard work. This is Zimbabwe’s second constitutional vote - a 2000 referendum narrowly failed - and this charter was years in the making. The new constitution was a condition of a fractious government coalition formed after violent and disputed 2008 elections.
Like that uneasy joining of former rivals, this document is a compromise. Still, the long-powerful ZANU-PF party, led by President Robert Mugabe, and the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Mugabe rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, both say they support the draft.
But critics say that the constitution is still not democratic enough. A coalition of pro-democracy groups lobbied unsuccessfully to block the vote.
Politician Job Sikhala has few nice words to say about the joint MDC and ZANU-PF writing effort. "This is a gigantic fraud these people have come out with. The truth is: we have to back to our roots where we said we want a democratic constitution, where everybody in Zimbabwe will be able to participate," Sikhala said.
Lovemore Madhuku heads the National Constitutional Assembly, the coalition of pro-democracy groups opposed to the draft.
"From day one we are fighting for a democratic constitution. If you read the campaign material for the yes (vote), they list issues which were never the key issues for the crusade for a new constitution. What inspired us to go for a new constitution was to create an accountable governance framework which starts from the powers which you allocate to the head of state and government," Madhuku said.
Madhuku has said the constitution still gives too much power to President Mugabe. He also noted that Zimbabweans were given just four weeks to study the complex and lengthy document.
Other notable changes in the new document are more rights for women and a scaling back of the death penalty. It also brings in presidential term limits of two, five year terms. That provision is not retroactive, so Mugabe, who is 89, could continue to serve for another decade.
Mugabe says he sees the constitution as a prelude to his party winning elections scheduled for later this year. He intends to run for president again.
"There is nothing bad about about this constitution, just small things which can be amended later," he says. The president says he wants a yes vote so Zimbabwe can get on with elections -- elections which he says his ZANU-PF party will win.
That too presents concerns. Mugabe’s government has blocked international observers from watching this poll. Critics of his government say there have already been episodes of pre-election violence, and say they fear more will come when Mugabe’s campaign heats up.