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Zimbabwe Readies For Vote on New Constitution

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe gestures as he speaks during an event marking his 89th birthday in Bindura, about 90 km north of the capital Harare Mar. 2, 2013.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe gestures as he speaks during an event marking his 89th birthday in Bindura, about 90 km north of the capital Harare Mar. 2, 2013.

Zimbabweans will head to the polls in a week to vote on a new constitution ahead of presidential elections planned for later this year. Political leaders on both sides of the spectrum are urging citizens to approve the draft, but the former opposition says the big fight is ahead, when the nation chooses a president later this year.

Zimbabwe's finance minister, Tendai Biti, said the presidential vote would be a "make or break" event for the southern African nation. He cited examples of growing violence ahead of that contest.

But first, he said, the nation's voters have to approve this constitution. Both sides of the political spectrum -- Biti's former opposition party and the ruling ZANU-PF -- are hoping the constitution will pass.

Biti spoke from the capital of South Africa, Pretoria. His Movement for Democratic Change visited the neighboring country to urge some 1.5 million Zimbabweans living here to return home to vote.

"I think it's a very proud moment that Zimbabweans actually have a constitution by themselves and for themselves. And a constitution which to some of us is a major paradigm from the current trajectory of the country. It's a major U-turn to the current trajectory of chaos, fascism and destruction. It's a constitution that can hold its own against the best in the world," he said.

Constitutional reform was one of the conditions of Zimbabwe's coalition government. The coalition was formed after disputed and violent elections in 2008, with long-term President Robert Mugabe still at the helm after a contentious and violence-marred vote.

The writing of the constitution has not been smooth. The charter took years longer to frame than expected, and both sides have described the result as an imperfect compromise. Critics of Mugabe say the charter still gives him too much power. One major change is that presidents will be limited to two, five-year terms. But that provision is not retroactive, so Mugabe, who has ruled since 1980, could continue to serve until the age of 99.

But Biti says he wants voters to oust Mugabe when presidential elections are held. If not, he warned, the nation may suffer dire consequences.

"This election offers a decisive chance after 2008 to set it right. If we don't set it right, when we had the crisis in 2008, a lot of people actually gave us a second chance. But my suspicion is that if we get it wrong this time around, I think there will be a massive dislocation, a massive movement of people from Zimbabwe. And also, the international community, which is already tired of Zimbabwe, I think they'll just pack their bags," he said.

The Southern African Development Community said Saturday that it urges Zimbabweans to vote peacefully. South African President Jacob Zuma said the process has been going as expected, but no presidential vote date has been set.

"...all parties in the global political agreement have agreed, firstly they have concluded an important process of constitution making and they have agreed it must now go to the referendum, and the date has been set, so that is no longer the issue. The date has not been necessarily identified because after the referendum, that will be the process of working out the roadmap which must be based on the law and the constitution of Zimbabwe. And the work that will go into that one will then determine when is the date. So at the moment, everybody agrees to go for the referendum, thereafter elections," he said.

The constitutional referendum is scheduled for Saturday.