HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe's president on Monday called for an end to violence and hostility as the country moves toward a constitutional referendum and elections.
President Robert Mugabe, 88, in an hour long address at a national shrine known as Heroes Acre outside Harare, said he wanted all parties and religious and activist groups to show tolerance for each other in the coming months.
"If people have a difference of opinion and want to defect from one party to another, it must be respected and expressed in elections. We don't want any more violence or blood spilt," Mugabe said, speaking mostly in the local Shona language.
The last disputed elections in 2008 were marred by violence blamed mainly on Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and led to a power sharing coalition with the former opposition brokered by regional leaders.
As the leader clenched his fist and raised it into the air, the symbol for his ZANU-PF party, he reassured Zimbabweans that the image of the fist is not a gesture of violence despite its past use and forceful nature when placed alongside the open hand symbol of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic party.
"It was not for violence against our own kind," he said of the party's fist symbol. Amid violence in recent years, Mugabe has often raised his fist in the air as a warning to political opponents. The raised fist, Mugabe said, was used to fight colonial-era white rule and was "the punch that knocked them down." He used it Monday to salute guerrillas who died in the bush war that ended white rule in 1980.
Mugabe has made previous calls for a peaceful transition to a new constitution and polls to end a shaky four-year coalition. But independent rights groups say political violence and intimidation has continued with proposed elections looming.
Mugabe said Monday he was "delighted the curtain is coming down" on a new constitution after three years of bitter negotiations within the coalition after nationwide canvassing for voters' views on reformed constitutional law.
His party has proposed amendments to the 150-page draft that affect a proposed reduction of presidential powers and, it says, the absence in the draft of contributions it claims were made by its supporters and ordinary electors.
"The constitution should unashamedly reflect Zimbabwe's values and principles. No more, no less," Mugabe said.
Under Zimbabwe's power-sharing coalition brokered by regional leaders, the proposed constitution must be put to a referendum before fresh elections can be held. Prime Minister Tsvangirai has urged his party to support the draft with a "yes" vote in a referendum planned before the end of this year.
His party has expressed fears that if the reforms are abandoned there could be a repeat of the violent and disputed elections. It has accused Mugabe loyalists of trying to sabotage negotiations on the new draft that ZANU-PF representatives took part in creating over three years of delays and bickering.
Mugabe's politburo, the top policy body for his party, is scheduled to meet Wednesday to agree on the amendments it demands should be included. The former opposition insists ZANU-PF negotiators helped complete the final draft and there's no place for drastic amendments.
"Once there is consensus, we will go for a referendum. It is our expectation elections will fall soon after," Mugabe said Monday.
Mugabe has threatened to call elections without a new constitution if disputes over the reforms are not resolved. A panel of lawmakers in charge of rewriting the constitution says that would be in breach of the terms of the power sharing agreement that founded the coalition and paved the way for polls under a democratic constitution.
Regional mediators have proposed mid-2013 as a reasonable timetable for parliamentary and presidential polls.