HARARE Zimbabwe's Constitutional Court ordered President Robert Mugabe on Friday to hold elections before the end of July, adding to a political controversy over the timing and funding of the vote in the southern African state.
"The elections should take place no later than 31st July 2013," the court's Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku said.
He was ruling on an application to the court by a Zimbabwean citizen demanding that Mugabe set an election date before the current parliament expires next month.
Mugabe, 89, and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is to face long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai in the vote.
Tsvangirai has been arguing that fresh elections after disputed polls in 2008, which led to the formation of a power-sharing government, should be delayed.
He says this will allow for the opening up of broadcast media, registration of new voters and reform of the military to ensure it stays out of politics.
A Zimbabwean rights activist, Jealousy Mawarire, filed a case with the Constitutional Court challenging Mugabe to set dates for presidential and parliamentary elections by June 29, arguing that the executive risked violating the constitution.
Chief Justice Chidyausiku, whose ruling was supported by six other judges, said it was now legally impossible to hold elections by June 29, but that Mugabe had violated Mawarire's rights as a voter by not proclaiming an election date so far.
There was no immediate response from the presidency but lawyers say Mugabe could seek an extension on the July 31 date through the courts.
Zimbabwe's finance minister, Tendai Biti, a senior member of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party has said the country is struggling to find $132 million needed to be able to hold the elections. Regional leaders have called a special summit to help Harare raise the money.
Mugabe has been in power since leading the former Rhodesia to independence from Britain in 1980, and denies charges that he has used violence and rigged the last four major elections to retain office.
(Reporting by Cris Chinaka; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)