Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Thursday defended the decision to schedule the constitutional referendum just four and a half weeks from now, saying it is enough time for Zimbabweans to learn what they need to know about the draft charter.
Mr. Tsvangirai said the March 16 referendum date, announced by Constitutional Affairs Minister Eric Matinenga on Wednesday, gives Zimbabweans enough time to study and debate provisions of the draft constitution, especially because many issues in the constitution have been under discussion for months or even years.
Not everyone agrees that 30 days before the referendum is sufficient. The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a civil society organization that has appealed for what it calls a people-driven constitution, said it will go to court to try and compel the government to set a date at least two months out in order to give everyone time to analyse the draft in detail.
But the national unity government appears committed to a swift timetable.
Mr. Tsvangirai told a civil society gathering Wednesday that elections could come as early as July this year.
In response to critics, the prime minister said government leaders cannot simply set any date they like, noting that the law often dictates when certain events must take place.
Mr. Tsvangirai also told civil society leaders that a special Southern African Development Community summit on Zimbabwe will be held soon, and felt confident that regional leaders would work to ensure that both the referendum and elections will be free and fair.
At any rate, the premier said, he believes that conditions in the country have improved such that he does not expect elections this year to be as chaotic and controversial as in 2008.
Mr. Tsvangirai was attending the 39th governing council meeting for ministers, organized by the African Regional Labor Administration Centre (ARLAC).
At ARLAC, the prime minister launched "the Zimbabwe Decent Work Country Program" for 2012 to 2015, a government scheme to prioritize job creation and ensure economic sustainability and growth.
The meeting, attended by labor ministers from several African countries and representatives of the international labor organization, runs all week. The gathering is expected to yield strategies that African governments can use to promote job growth.
Meanwhile, the chiefs’ annual conference opened in Masvingo on Thursday with the president of the Council of Chiefs, Fortune Charumbira, calling for violent-free elections as the country starts preparing for a vote on the draft constitution and crucial polls later in the year.
Chief Charumbira told more than 150 traditional leaders attending the conference that chiefs remain concerned that the draft constitution did not adequately empower them so they can continue to do their traditional roles like land re-distribution.