DOMBOSHAVA, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Zimbabweans voting in a referendum this weekend are expected to endorse a new constitution that would curb presidential powers and lead to an election that will determine whether Robert Mugabe extends his 33-year rule.
The draft charter enjoys the support of both Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of his arch-rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, making violence around Saturday's vote unlikely.
The referendum will be a dry run for presidential and parliamentary elections later this year in which ZANU-PF is expected to face a stiff challenge from the MDC, its current awkward ruling partner, although there are no reliable polls.
If it wins, the MDC says it will revive a once-vibrant economy that shrank by an estimated 40 percent from 2000 to 2010 due largely to disastrous Mugabe economic policies, including the seizure of white-owned commercial farms.
The new constitution aims to strengthen the cabinet and parliament, both weakened during Mugabe's dominating tenure. Presidential decrees will require majority backing in the cabinet and declarations of emergency rule or dissolutions of parliament will need the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers.
It would also mandate a maximum two five-year terms for the president, starting with the coming election. But the limit will not apply retroactively, so Mugabe - already Africa's oldest leader - could technically rule for another two terms.
The new constitution was a prerequisite for the next elections under a power-sharing deal signed by Mugabe and Tsvangirai in 2009. The MDC had said there would be no point to further elections without constitutional reform.
But ZANU-PF has maintained a hard line against traditional critics, barring observers from Western powers who have imposed sanctions on ZANU-PF over longstanding charges of human rights abuses and election rigging.
POPULAR SUPPORT FOR CHANGE
In Domboshava, a rural region 40 km (25 miles) north of Harare, there was no sign of the looming referendum and many people had not even seen the new constitution text.
But they still said they would vote for the document, which requires only a simple majority for passage.
"I have not read the constitution myself but I was told that it was good for the youths. I will vote yes," said 20-year-old Dereck Mayiya, lining up a shot at a billiards table in a bar.
The median age in Zimbabwe is 33 and its many young, eligible voters are seen as desperate for jobs and a change in leadership to mend a wrecked economy.
The European Union relaxed sanctions against Mugabe last month and Australia followed suit this week, rewarding the power-sharing government for agreeing on the draft charter. More easing could follow if the referendum passes off smoothly.
The ban on Western monitors has rankled the MDC, but the campaigning Tsvangirai has been able to venture into the heart of Mugabe support in the rural north and move around freely, according to his aides.
Tsvangirai says he was robbed of votes in previous elections when pro-Mugabe youth brigades and independence war veterans stopped him from circulating in ZANU-PF strongholds.
With Zimbabwe on the verge of bankruptcy after a decade-long economic slump, the referendum is being run on the tightest of shoe-strings. There are no campaign posters or billboards and only 90,000 copies of the draft constitution were printed for the six million eligible voters.
ZANU-PF and the MDC waited until this week to run newspaper advertisements urging supporters to accept the new charter.
The National Constitutional Assembly, a rare pressure group opposing the charter, has carved a higher profile with posters in and around Harare urging voters to say "No".
The NCA says the constitution was supposed to have been reworked by civic organisations and not politicians and the president's powers are still excessive under the new plan.
ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority in the 2008 election but Tsvangirai failed to win an outright victory over Mugabe in the first round and had to drop out before the run-off after attacks by Mugabe loyalists killed hundreds of MDC supporters.