April 12, 2009 / 1:52 PM / 8 years ago

Zimbabwe sets team to drive constitutional reforms

<p>Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe seats inside the Methodist Church in Harare, during the church service for Susan, late wife of Prime Minister and main opposition Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai March 10, 2009.Philimon Bulawayo</p>

HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe set up a parliamentary team Sunday to spearhead the writing of a new constitution which President Robert Mugabe's opponents say will be key to holding free and fair elections.

Critics say Mugabe, 85 and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has used tough security and media laws to stifle opposition to his ZANU-PF party, and has rigged polls in the last 10 years to remain in office.

Sunday, Zimbabwe's Speaker of Parliament Lovemore Moyo announced that a new unity government, which Mugabe formed with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in February to try to break a post-election crisis, had assembled a 25-member parliamentary committee to lead the process of writing a new constitution.

The process would include consultations around the country, and the new constitution would have to be approved by a national referendum to be held by mid July next year, Moyo said.

In February 2000, Mugabe's government lost a referendum for a new constitution which Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said was meant to tighten ZANU-PF's grip on power.

Moyo said the new drive by ZANU-PF and the two wings of the MDC which dominate parliament was more inclusive and would lead to "a people-centered, inspired and democratic constitution."

"We commit ourselves to ensuring that the process will be as credible as possible," he said.

Political analysts say although there are tensions between Mugabe and Tsvangirai in the new unity government over rights abuses and continuing seizures of white-owned farms by ZANU-PF officials, the power-sharing agreement is likely to hold until the next elections, which are expected to be called in 2011.

Mugabe stoked tensions again at the weekend when he transferred the supervision of the telecommunication industry from MDC cabinet minister Nelson Chamisa to a ZANU-PF official.

"There are all these tensions, and we should expect to see quite a number in the coming months," said Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe.

"But that announcement of the select committee on the constitutional issue is a demonstration that on the big issues, the (power-sharing) agreement is going to hold," he said.

"There are no viable alternative options for both the MDC and ZANU-PF outside this agreement," Masunungure said.

Moyo said the government was still working out a budget for the constitutional reform program, but appealed to foreign donors to give some support.

"Those who wish us well must come on board, and I know there is a lot of goodwill out there," he said.

The government has crafted a short-term emergency program to help revive an economy battered by ten years of contraction and hyperinflation under Mugabe's controversial policies.

It says the program will give greater emphasis to political and economic reforms which analysts say will be critical to unlocking financial aid from Western donors.

Reporting by Cris Chinaka, editing by Philippa Fletcher

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