Zimbabweans bemoan rush to vote on new constitution

Seventy-six-year-old Matilda Mahlatini says she will not be joining hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans voting in a constitutional referendum on Saturday.

The widow, who ekes out a living on a small plot of land an hour's drive from Harare, says she has no idea what is in the charter or what it will mean for her country.

Instead of voting, she'll be working, she says.

"I will be chasing away the monkeys and baboons," the grey-haired Mahlatini told AFP.

"If I go to vote all of my mealies (sweet corn) will be eaten and what am I going to eat myself?"

Her only hope is that the vote will change things, "especially the economy", she says.

Like Mahlatini, fellow villagers Evans Gororo and Donald Chikata have not seen or read the draft constitution, but they say they will vote in the referendum.

"I haven't seen the draft," Chikata said. "I only heard about it on radio, but I am going to vote tomorrow."

He would not say whether he would vote to endorse or reject the draft.

Gororo said: "I don't even know what's good or bad in the constitution but I am going to vote still."

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are expected to vote in the referendum, many without having read the draft charter.

A Harare-based businessman who refused to be named bemoaned the little time voters had to study the draft and understand its contents.

He said he had received his copy of the draft when it was published as an insert in a state-owned newspaper nearly three weeks ago, but did not get the time to read through it.

Rights groups decried the last-minute rush by parties in the power-sharing government to complete the draft constitution and put it to a referendum.

"Essentially three weeks were provided to disseminate, publicise and educate the nation on the contents of a voluminous and intricate legal document," Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said in a statement on the eve of the vote.

"Fast-tracking adoption of the draft by parliament without substantive debate and the subsequent fast-track gazetting of the draft and referendum dates after such long delays in the earlier stages raises concerns and questions around the democratic and popular nature of the debate and scrutiny of the draft."

A new constitution is a precondition for new elections expected in July this year to choose a successor to the power-sharing government formed fours ago by veteran President Robert Mugabe and long-time rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

The two, who have both endorsed the draft, were forced into a unity pact in the aftermath of a bloody presidential run-off election in 2008.

The proposed constitution limits the presidential tenure to two five-year terms, curtails presidential powers and spares women and men over 70 from the death sentence.

The constitution-making process was supposed to have been completed by mid-2010, but dragged on until this year amid hitches including violent disruptions of sessions to gather people's views.

The clashes resulted in at least two deaths.