Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (R) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai address a media conference in Harare, January 17, 2013.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (R) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai address a media conference in Harare, January 17, 2013.
HARARE - An African think-tank says Zimbabwe is not yet ready to hold free and fair elections.  Citing the limited space for opposition politics and general lack of tolerance for political dissent in the African nation, the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa said even the constitutional referendum set for next week will reflect mainly the wishes of the country’s main political parties. 

In a report titled “Compromise or Compromised,” the Pretoria-based Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa, or IDASA, said Zimbabwe’s coalition government has scored a weak 30 percent rating on democracy since 2009.  That's the year President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai formed a power-sharing government following disputed and violence-plagued elections.  

Rumbidzai Dube, one of the authors of the report, explained the reasons for Zimbabwe's low rating.

“On the question of political freedoms in Zimbabwe: How free are Zimbabweans to exercise their political freedoms?  How free are they to assemble?  How free are they to associate with each other?  How free are they to express themselves?  How much access do they have to all sorts of information from all sorts of media?  And how free is the media to exercise its roles in Zimbabwean society? Looking at all those and how all those freedoms are consistently and constantly trashed, I came to the conclusion that the ability of Zimbabweans to exercise those freedoms is extremely low,” she said.

The report comes as Zimbabwe prepares for a referendum next week on a draft constitution, written by a government-appointed committee.  State-owned radio stations are shutting out all voices campaigning against the draft charter, while authorities are trying to limit people's access to foreign stations that might air those views.  

On Friday, police arrested Jestina Mukoko, who heads an activist group, the Zimbabwe Peace Project.  During an earlier raid on the group's office, police found radios that receive foreign stations, meant for distribution to Zimbabweans in rural areas.  

Kudakwashe Chitsike, another author of the IDASA report, suggested the referendum will not reflect the real wishes of Zimbabweans.

“The issue with the referendum is that it is an almost given that it is a yes vote.  We all know that it has been negotiated between the political parties," she said. "So it is going to be a yes vote, whether we go and vote or not.  Again showing that we are just going through [the] motions.”

In a telephone interview with VOA, Zimbabwe Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa defended the constitutional referendum, saying elections in his country have been credible and peaceful.  He said there have not been any reports of violence in the run-up to the referendum.

Dube of IDASA is not surprised by the peace in the country.

“Despite that, though, the openess of space towards the referendum is in relation to how much access people can get [to] information that is coming from political parties themselves but [also] from other independent sources who might have different views," she said. "That space has remained closed.  The outcome is that people have not been given access to that alternative source of information.”

The fact that dissenting voices are being shut down is part of the argument made in court by some NGOs who want the referendum postponed.  Their appeal is set to be heard at the Supreme Court next Wednesday, three days before the referendum.

The draft constitution has provisions strengthening state institutions such as the cabinet, parliament and judiciary.  It would also reduce presidential powers and sets a maximum of two terms for the president.  But the term limits are not retroactive, which means that longtime President Robert Mugabe, who just turned 89, could conceivably serve another 10 years.