Zimbabwe draft constitution curbs presidential powers

HARARE Tue Jan 29, 2013 4:16pm GMT

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe gestures as he addresses mourners gathered for the burial of Vice-President John Nkomo at National Heroes Acre in Harare January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe gestures as he addresses mourners gathered for the burial of Vice-President John Nkomo at National Heroes Acre in Harare January 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

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HARARE (Reuters) - A draft constitution in Zimbabwe that paves the way for an election this year curbs presidential powers and strengthens cabinet and parliament, which have been weakened under veteran President Robert Mugabe's rule.

According to a final copy of the draft charter obtained by Reuters on Tuesday, the president will be required to exercise power in consultation with the cabinet, with decrees requiring its majority backing.

The current constitution allows the president to issue decrees alone that can have the force of law for up to six months.

The new document also limits the president to two, five-year terms, starting from the next election. However this will not be applied retrospectively, so Mugabe - who has been in power for 32 years - could technically rule for another two terms.

Last week, the country's two most powerful parties - Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai - said they supported the draft, virtually ensuring its passage through parliament as early as next week.

If passed by parliament, it will be put up for a national referendum between March and April, a crucial step before elections required for this year under the power-sharing deal struck between Mugabe and Tsvangirai after disputed 2008 polls.

Presidential powers to declare public emergencies and dissolve parliament have been diluted in the draft by requiring two-thirds of lawmakers to back any such measure in a vote.

Parliament can also be dissolved only for "unreasonably" failing to approve the national budget.

Although the current constitution requires parliamentary approval in the declaration of emergencies, it requires only a simple majority. The president can currently dissolve parliament without parliamentary approval.

Some civil rights have also been expanded in the new document, with clauses on freedom of the press, access to information, political choice and activity as well as prisoners' rights.

DEATH PENALTY

The draft retains the ban on same-sex marriage in the conservative southern African state. It also keeps the death penalty, but only for "murder committed in aggravating circumstances" and makes exceptions for women and people aged below 21 years or those above 70 years old.

The current constitution allows execution of anyone above 18 for murder.

Mugabe, 88, has ruled the country with mostly a free hand since its independence in 1980 from Britain and has been accused of hanging on to power through vote-rigging. He says he will contest the next election despite questions over his advanced age and concerns over his health.

The president forced the deferment by at least 10 years of a clause in the new charter requiring candidates to nominate running mates who would automatically succeed them should they be unable to continue in office.

Until that clause comes into effect, the party holding the presidency can name a successor at the time that a incumbent is unable to continue.

Some in ZANU-PF want Mugabe to hand over the reins to a younger leader, but he has steadfastly refused to discuss succession, an issue that has stoked factional disputes within the party.

The charter had looked in doubt last year when ZANU-PF tried to oppose curbs on presidential powers and a strengthening of parliament.

Funding problems and constant bickering between the coalition parties have delayed the adoption of a new constitution, initially scheduled to be completed in 2010.

Mugabe, who had previously threatened to call a vote before a new constitution had been agreed, has been held back by regional leaders eager to avoid a repeat of the violent and disputed 2008 poll that was condemned by much of the world.

The veteran ruler and his ZANU-PF face a stiff challenge from the MDC, which says it will breathe fresh life into an economy that shrank by an estimated 40 percent from 2000 to 2010 due largely to Mugabe's seizure of white-owned commercial farms and what critics say has been economic mismanagement.

(Reporting by Nelson Banya; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Pravin Char)

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