HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe said Monday that a peaceful conference to agree upon a new constitution will help pave the way for national elections he wants to hold in March.
Mugabe, opening the two-day constitutional meeting , urged 1,300 delegates from all political parties and civic groups "to shame our detractors" who believe Zimbabwe can't solve its problems without violence.
The previous all-stakeholders conference on constitutional reform was abandoned in 2009 after violent disruptions by Mugabe militants.
Reforms to the constitution drafted over the past three years have been plagued by delays and disputes over the reduction of powers traditionally held by Mugabe and his party since independence in 1980.
Mugabe said Monday it was up to the delegates to itemize "imperfections" in the 150-page draft and recommend improvements reflecting the people's wishes.
Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has proposed more than 200 amendments to the draft. It insisted the all-party panel of lawmakers in charge of an outreach program to canvass for public opinion on reform ignored the views of many of its supporters.
The former opposition party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in a shaky coalition with Mugabe since violent and disputed elections in 2008, supports the draft and has called for a "Yes" vote in a referendum that must be held on it before new presidential and parliamentary polls can be called.
Mugabe on Monday left the door open for revisions to the draft that Tsvangirai's party opposes.
The conference "will enable us to say there need to be improvements that truly take into account what the people want," said Mugabe, 88
He said he appealed to all participants to exercise tolerance to find speedy answers to disagreements because "there will certainly be elections in March next year."
The conference is scheduled to go into closed working groups later Monday and wind up Tuesday. Its recommendations will next be debated in the Harare parliament ahead of a referendum.
Regional mediators of the Southern African Development Community have demanded a new constitution with reforms on political and media freedoms to make sure upcoming elections are free and fair.
Tsvangirai, 60, said Monday the meeting put constitutional reform "on the home stretch." He dismissed threats by senior Mugabe loyalists and military officers in recent weeks that they would not accept an election victory by his party.
Several army generals have refused to salute Tsvangirai, saying he and most of his political colleagues did not fight in the guerrilla war that ended colonial-era British rule in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai said the constitution was meant to protect the rule of law and prevent "a coup or military subversion of the people's will."
"We are trying to create a constitution which knows no political party but which ensures that the democracy and freedoms that so many fought and died for are realized. We have chosen constitutionalism and not militarism," Tsvangirai said.