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Violence erupts on eve of Zimbabwe referendum

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai speaks to church leaders in Harare on March 15, 2013
Zimbabwe Prime Minister and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai speaks to church leaders who were gathered at his offices during a meeting focused on the final draft constitution in Harare on March 15, 2013. Seven members of the Zimbabwe prime minister's party w

Suspected supporters of Zimbabwe's veteran leader Robert Mugabe were accused of attacking members of the main opposition party Friday, heightening tensions on the eve of a key constitutional referendum.

Seven members from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were assaulted as they were putting up posters in Harare's oldest township of Mbare, urging voters to approve the proposed constitution in Saturday's vote.

"The attacks are a clear testimony that ZANU-PF wants to embark on acts of violence," said MDC spokesman Douglas Mwonzora, referring to Mugabe's party.

The new constitution would lay the groundwork for watershed elections due in July that would end an often acrimonious power-sharing deal between Mugabe and his rival Tsvangirai.

Although the draft has the backing of both the 89-year-old Mugabe and Tsvangirai and is expected to pass easily, tensions between supporters of the two main parties are seething after a series of bloody elections in the crisis-weary country.

A man in Harare holds posters calling on Zimbabweans to vote yes in the constitutional referendum on March 14, 2013
A man in Harare holds posters calling on Zimbabweans to vote yes in the constitutional referendum on March 14, 2013. If approved, the new supreme law will also clip many of the presidential powers that veteran leader Robert Mugabe has enjoyed for decades.

Two of the seven MDC members were seriously wounded in the attack in Mbare and parliament candidate Sten Zvorwadza was hit in the neck with a bottle and punched, he said.

A BBC crew filming the campaign said it was also attacked.

The newly appointed head of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Rita Makarau on Friday urged a peaceful vote.

"Please go and vote peacefully, this is our supreme law," Makarau said.

Police however said the incident was staged, questioning why it was not reported to authorities.

"This is clear testimony of a dramatised incident to provoke the anger of the residents and then they begin to tarnish the image of the country. This is quite disturbing. It's unfair," police spokesman Oliver Mandipaka told AFP.

Tsvangirai has been criss-crossing the southern African nation to drum up support for the constitution which took some three years to draft.

-- 'Society must be reconciled' --

On Friday he asked religious leaders to pray for the country, once one of the richest in Africa but whose fortunes have sunk.

A man in Harare holds posters calling on Zimbabweans to vote yes in the constitutional referendum on March 14, 2013
A man in Harare yesterday holds posters calling on Zimbabweans to vote yes in the constitutional referendum.

"It is your responsibility... this society needs to be reconciled," Tsvangirai said. "If we are going to have freedom in this country, we must work for it."

The new constitution would decentralise power and limit Mugabe -- and any subsequent presidents -- to two five year terms. However Mugabe would be eligible to stay in power until 2023, when he would be 99 years old.

Tsvangirai's MDC has highlighted constitutional clauses guaranteeing protection against all forms of violence, and free and fair voting.

MDC supporters have been on the receiving end of violence blamed on activists from the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

They have lauded a provision that obliges police and the military to be apolitical, raising the hopes of victims of past political violence.

A woman prepares a meal at her home in Domboshava, 60 kms north of Harare on March 15, 2013
A woman prepares a meal at her home in Domboshava, 60 kms north of Harare on March 15, 2013.

"I'm hoping this new constitution will bring about change, especially in the police force. The police used to behave as if they were ZANU-PF youth activists," said 31-year-old Tendai Maritinyu, whose body bears scars of a 2006 beating.

Others are sceptical that the adoption of the constitution alone can really be a reason to celebrate, since laws are not always respected in a country where security forces act with impunity.

"It has been quiet so far because we are all agreeing to vote 'yes'. But what will happen after the referendum is our greatest fear. We are not settled because after the referendum, things might hot up," said John Munikwa, 38, a father of four who is also a victim of past violence.

ZANU-PF has focused on the "irreversibility of the land reform" campaign and "economic empowerment opportunities" in pushing for a "yes" vote on the constitution.

The National Constitutional Assembly, a non-governmental grouping, wants to see the new constitution rejected, arguing that if anything it grants Mugabe more unfettered powers than before.

"This draft constitution is an insult to the people," Assembly leader Lovemore Madhuku told reporters.

The draft puts improvements in human rights to the fore, along with freedom of the press and gender equality. It also guarantees free, fair and regular elections, and for citizens to freely make political choices.

But observers fear there will not be sufficient time to apply all the necessary reforms to ensure a healthier political environment before the next elections, expected in June or July.

Others complain there was not enough time to debate and digest the text, leaving many to just vote for a document they know little about.

"The fast-track adoption of the draft by parliament without substantive debate... raises concerns and questions about the democratic and popular nature of scrutiny," said Andrew Makoni, a human rights lawyer.