HARARE, Zimbabwe – One campaign ad on the Internet shows video footage of a lawmaker in Zimbabwe's tenuous coalition government punching a Cabinet minister appointed by President Robert Mugabe. Another ad attacks the president's rival and coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, with a clip of him defending gay rights, an unpopular stance in many sectors of Zimbabwean society, during a television interview.
Ahead of a vote Saturday on a new constitution, Zimbabwe's main political camps are urging their supporters to approve it, making the outcome all but certain. But you wouldn't know they were in agreement from the tone of some campaigning, which amounts to a test run for national elections slated around July, a high-stakes event expected to end coalition rule and determine whether Mugabe retains his tight grip after decades in power.
The referendum this weekend mirrors the hopes and fears of four previous elections marred by violence and vote-rigging since Tsvangirai, a former labor leader, founded his Movement for Democratic Change party, the first real challenge to Mugabe, in 1999.
All political groups have called for a 'Yes' vote on a constitution whose reforms would reduce presidential powers and grant more democratic rights, meaning the likelihood of widespread violence is minimal. However, even if the constitution is approved, arrests and harassment of rights and democracy activists this year by police loyal to Mugabe raise doubts about whether such changes would be seriously enforced.
The draft constitution, for example, imposes a limit of two five-year terms on the office of president but it is not retroactive, enabling Mugabe to rule for two more terms to age 99 if he were to win the next two elections.
Mugabe's loyalists have posted United States-style presidential campaign advertisements on the Internet claiming that Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change Party even resorts to violence by punching and assaulting members of the Harare parliament while Mugabe spurns violence. Gay rights have been rejected by Mugabe, an outspoken critic of same sex partners he has described as "lower than pigs and dogs," a well-received stance in many generally homophobic African communities.
Tsvangirai denies unequivocal support for gay rights but says the new constitution being voted on Saturday enshrines broader protection for equal rights among all Zimbabweans.
He has recently been on a high-profile campaign of daily rallies in favor of the referendum, while Mugabe has only touched briefly on the referendum at small public engagements.
Slick ads on YouTube and other sites implore Zimbabweans to "Think Before You Vote" for the country's next president later in the year. Mugabe had ruled virtually unchallenged until Tsvangirai launched his opposition party. Mugabe's loyalists have been blamed for most violence in a decade of political and economic turmoil.
At least one third of Zimbabwe's population of 12 million is estimated to have Internet access through mobile phones.
To woo younger support, Mugabe, 89, has also appeared in a new pop music video on state television with a singing group called the Born Free Crew, symbolizing young Zimbabweans born after he led the nation to independence. The ascetic Mugabe, dressed in a business suit, dances awkwardly with the young African rappers in denims with roughed-up hair shaven into strips and zig-zags.
Mugabe then sings "Zviri sei sei" in the local Shona language, street slang for "Hey, how's it going?"
The state Electoral Commission said mobile phones won't be allowed Saturday into the 9,400 polling stations in case voters photograph their ballot papers. This was seen in this month's Kenya presidential race so that voters could prove to their leaders how they balloted, said the acting head of the Zimbabwe election body, Joyce Kazembe.
In past voting, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party has been accused of coercing voters to support it with threats of retribution after polling.
Pro-democracy groups and witnesses have reported this month that supporters of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party have been making door-to-door visits to list the names and identity details of householders and their members. The supporters have also activated car theft alarms outside homes in an apparent attempt to unsettle voters by trying to convince them that they will be under technical surveillance, even inside voting booths.
Witnesses also reported being told incorrectly that Tsvangirai did not favor a 'Yes' vote in the referendum and therefore the expected overwhelming approval of the constitution would show a Mugabe landslide that would be repeated in upcoming presidential polls. According to this scheme, citizens would then deem it pointless to vote for Tsvangirai, 61, as a presidential hopeful.
The election body says it has printed 12 million ballot papers for the referendum. The nation has 6.6 million registered voters, but on Saturday all Zimbabweans over age 18 carrying a valid citizens' identification document can vote over a 12 hour period from 7 a.m. local time (0500 GMT). Polling stations using indelible finger ink on the hands of those who have already voted will stay open later if voters are still in line at the closing time.
A final tally of turnout and results is expected within five days.
The draft constitution reduces presidential powers to pass authoritarian decrees and paves the way for a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission on past violence and human rights violations.
It also strengthens the bill of rights to protect all Zimbabweans from "torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment" that would be enforced by a new Constitutional Court with powers above the main existing highest court of appeal, the Supreme Court.
In urging supporters to vote 'Yes,' Mugabe's party says the draft recognizes as irreversible the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms for handing over to blacks since 2000, black empowerment programs and taking local control of foreign-owned mines and businesses.
It says the draft honors black guerrilla fighters who ended colonial rule after a seven-year bush war with white-led troops of the former colony of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known before independence.