HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe issued an official proclamation on Friday setting March 16 as the date for the nation to vote on a new constitution ahead of national elections later this year.
A government notice formally published on Friday leaves a calendar month for distribution of the 160-page draft document and campaigning for a 'Yes' or 'No' vote. Independent advocacy groups say that is not long enough for a free poll to reflect the wishes of electors.
Friday's notice said polling stations will be opened for 12 hours countrywide at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) on March 16, which is a Saturday.
The draft constitution was completed on Feb. 6 after three years of disputes, bickering and constant delays and funding shortages. Democratic reforms to the constitution were a key demand of regional mediators after violent, disputed elections in 2008.
About 90,000 copies of the draft are being printed for distribution starting Monday.
Zimbabwe has nearly 6 million registered voters out of a population of 13 million.
Mugabe's proclamation comes a day after the independent head of the state election commission resigned on grounds of failing health. The commission is in charge of overseeing all voting. Several lengthy formalities are required for its chairman, Judge Simpson Mutambanengwe, to be replaced. His deputy Joyce Kazembe, who has been acting for the elderly judge in his recent absences, is widely known as a sympathizer of Mugabe's ZANU PF party.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's former opposition party, in a shaky coalition with Mugabe, has called for the suspension of sweeping security laws in the run-up to vote on the constitution. Under those laws, police clearance is required for political gatherings. Party leaders say they need to explain the often obtuse legal language of the draft constitution.
Suspension or repeal of the draconian Public Order and Security Act, used to entrench the arrest and detention powers of loyalist police and military in a decade of political and economic turmoil, is opposed by Mugabe's hardliners.
Mugabe's announcement Friday did not take into account requests by Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change party for the referendum poll to be carried over to a second day.
All the country's political leaders have called for a referendum 'Yes' vote to allow the constitution to be accepted and signed into law by Mugabe without any further changes.
An estimated $200 million has still to be found to pay for the referendum and the parliamentary and presidential elections, possibly three months later, that Mugabe, who turns 89 on Feb. 21, is contesting as his party's sole presidential candidate.
Crisis in Zimbabwe, an alliance of rights and democracy activists, said on Thursday that March 16, as initially proposed, left far too little time to complete countrywide distribution of the new constitution and permit voters to become familiar with it, raising fears over the credibility of a rushed vote.
Amnesty International and local human rights groups have also protested a recent clampdown on rights and democracy activists by police that included tear gassing and baton charging women peace marchers marking Valentine's Day on Thursday.