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IRIN Focus on the constitutional referendum

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

The Zimbabwean government has vowed to clamp down on mounting political violence in the run-up to a referendum at the
weekend on the country's draft constitution.

Home Affairs Minister Dumiso Dabengwa said on Tuesday the government would use the draconian Law and Order Maintenance Act to curb unrest. "The Ministry of Home Affairs will not sit back and watch chaos become the order of the day towards and during the forthcoming referendum and the 2000 elections," he warned. Among other emergency provisions, the pre-independence law gives the police the power to detain suspects for more than 48 hours without trial.

Concern over violence

Analysts told IRIN they were concerned that sporadic clashes between supporters of President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party and opponents of the government's draft constitution have already sown the seeds of violence that could mar the country's legislative elections in April.

Running battles have been fought in Harare townships between supporters of ZANU-PF and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). At the weekend, MDC youths attacked ZANU-PF offices in Highfield, one of Harare's oldest low-income suburbs and the birthplace of the ruling party. On Monday night, ZANU-PF loyalists disrupted a voter awareness meeting on the
referendum held by ZimRights. Two members of the rights group were injured.

Zimbabweans go to the polls on Saturday and Sunday to decide whether to accept a draft constitution prepared by a government-appointed commission. The draft aims to replace the current constitution drawn up during independence negotiations at Lancaster House in London. Critics have long argued that its numerous amendments since 1980 have entrenched far to much
power in the hands of the presidency. They also charge that its merits have been clouded by the intense politicisation of the reform process and this weekend's referendum.

ZANU-PF versus MDC

In the referendum campaign, Mugabe and ZANU-PF, in power since independence in 1980, are calling for a 'Yes' vote for the draft. The newly-formed labour-linked MDC, the ruling party's first serious challenger since independence, and its civil society allies in the National Constitutional Assembly, want the document rejected. It is clearly understood in Zimbabwe that the referendum is more a gauge of respective political support ahead of the main event, the April legislative elections.

"That's why some of us are for delaying this historic event so it is not confused with politicking," ZimRights National Chairperson Nick Ndebele told IRIN. He instead wants to borrow positive aspects of the draft constitution to reform the existing electoral law, and then debate the constitution after the elections. "But of course, in the present political climate that's not going to happen," he added.

Instead, Zimbabwe is going ahead with a referendum for which human rights groups say the country is not ready. After years of refusing to countenance reform, they allege the government is now deliberately rushing the process. They warn that they do not have the time or the money to organise enough monitors to cover the 3,600 polling stations. They also complain that it is still not clear whether the verdict of the referendum is mandatory or merely advisory. It is also unknown whether rejection of the draft would mean a return to the Lancaster House document.

Presidential spokesman Mundaradzi Hwenijwere accuses the opposition of shifting the goal posts. "In the first place they said they wouldn't respect the views of the Constitutional Commission, then they said we shouldn't go ahead with the referendum, now they say we're fast-tracking. It's a weird
argument," he told IRIN.

But according to Ndebele of Zimrights, in the present climate, any opportunity by either side to claim rigging could lead to unrest. "Whatever happens, the result is going to be close and tension is building. We're having violence now. We're going to have violence right through to the election."

Urban turf battles

Brian Raftopoulos of the University of Zimbabwe's Institute of Development Studies believes the violence is inevitable. "The ruling party has a proclivity for violence, and the irony of opposition politics is that they tend to replicate the political culture of the party they are trying to oppose."

He added that ZANU-PF has been able to rely on traditional authority in the countryside to maintain its influence and the opposition's penetration has been relatively weak. But MDC support in the urban areas, particularly among disadvantaged youths, has outgrown the party's capacity for control, and he
predicted worsening turf battles in the coming weeks.

That, human rights campaigners say, raises the spectre of serious street clashes with the security forces - a threat the government appears to be taking seriously. Dabengwa, the home affairs minister, warned on Tuesday: "I do not intend to intimidate anybody, but if my advice and warnings are not
taken, then the force of law and order will prevail."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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