The document, which will limit future presidents to two five-year terms, was backed by more than three million votes – nearly 95% of those who voted. It was supported by the countries’ two main political parties who have been in a power-sharing government since 2009. The constitution’s approval paves the way for elections later in the year.
The weekend’s vote was free and fair, according to international observers.
“Based on its overall findings, the mission is of the view that there existed a substantially conducive and peaceful environment in which the referendum was conducted,” said Prince Gudiza Dlamini, the head of a Southern African Development Community observation mission. “The Zimbabweans were accorded the opportunity to freely express their will in voting for a referendum outcome of their choice.”
But human rights groups fear a crackdown on civil society groups is a disturbing indicator that the forthcoming election campaign is likely to be violent.
“The government needs to stop this police abuse of power and hold those responsible to account,” Human Rights Watch’s Tiseke Kasambala said in a statement.
“Zimbabwe’s authorities cannot expect to create a rights-respecting environment ahead of elections in the context of repression, harassment, and intimidation of civil society activists.”
Zimbabwean security forces’ defiance of a high court ruling ordering the release of a celebrated human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, highlights the need for democratic reform of state institutions.
“I think it shows that we are vindicated in setting out what needs to be done,” said Irene Petras, of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. “Political parties themselves need to look what is happening and see that these things need to be addressed because if we go into the election period with this kind of a police force, with these unreformed institutions, then we are likely to have problems in that election too.”
“They have defied that court order, and did not implement what they were told to do,” said Kumbirai Mafunda, spokesman for the group.
“Human rights lawyers will not be intimidated, will not bow,” said Precious Chakasikwa, vice chairwoman of the organization. “For every Beatrice Mtetwa that these state agents and institutions put behind bars and attempt to embarrass, humiliate and punish without lawful cause, there are 10 other human rights lawyers waiting to take up the mantle.”
Ms. Mtetwa was arrested at the home of Thabani Mpofu, a top adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister and the leader of the M.D.C., whose house was raided by plainclothes police officers on Sunday morning, witnesses said. The arrests follow months of harsh crackdowns on opposition politicians and civic groups in Zimbabwe ahead of a presidential election that is expected to be held this year. …
Ms. Mtetwa’s arrest on Sunday particularly troubled activists. Though she has been at the forefront in defending human rights groups, some activists said, she has always acted as a lawyer defending her clients, not as an activist herself.
“There is a very clear, broad campaign going on,” said Frances Lovemore of the Counseling Services Unit, an organization that provides medical and mental health services to victims of political violence.
“This whole attack on the civil society is part of their campaign to delegitimize all the organizations providing any information to people about human rights abuses,” she said.
Security forces last month beat and arrested activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise, and ransacked the offices of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, and charged the group’s director, Jestina Mukoko (right), with operating an illegal organization and smuggling radios into the country.
The crackdown signals maneuvering within ZANU-PF to succeed Robert Mugabe, analysts suggest.
“He doesn’t have as much control over the party as five years ago,” said Trevor Maisiri, an analyst for Southern Africa at International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “Warlords within his party and the youth are driving the violence—it’s not coming from one center.”
After years of misrule and unrest, Zimbabwe is at a critical juncture. The stakes are high in the presidential election. Mr. Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980 and is now 89, failed to win outright in 2008, and many here worry that he will use the country’s police and security forces to keep opposition supporters away from the polls to avoid defeat.
“Already the telltale signs are there,” said Douglas Mwonzora, the senior M.D.C. official on the constitution-drafting commission. “Unless the international community takes full responsibility and discharges its full duty to ensure the regime of Mugabe is brought into check, we will see a repeat of 2008.”
The security factions within ZANU-PF will never allow opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to win an election, say observers.
“It is civil society suffering now, but after the referendum the same state machinery will be turned on Tsvangirai,” said Munyaradzi Gwisai, a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
As Lydia Polgreen writes in the New York Times:
In the new Constitution, the president’s power to rule by decree is curtailed, and the document bolsters the bill of rights by banning cruel punishments and torture. But critics say the draft retains many of the president’s powers and does not do enough to increase oversight.
“This will create one monster who will determine the future of this country,” said Job Sikhala, leader of a breakaway faction of the Movement for Democratic Change known as M.D.C.-99, who urged people to vote against the new Constitution. “Is that what we fought for?”
Lovemore Madhuku, a leader of the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic group that urged people to vote against the Constitution, said the document represented a compromise between political enemies, not an expression of how Zimbabwe’s people wish to be governed.
“A democratic constitution must come from a democratic process that must be dominated by the wishes of the people,” Mr. Madhuku said. “Almost every Zimbabwean accepts that the process was not a good process.”
Several of the NGOs cited above are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.