Zimbabwe constitution reform program in disarray

Zimbabwean officials said meetings on a new constitution again broke up Thursday in disarray over a dispute, as the party of the longtime president demanded elections this year.

Members of a panel of lawmakers and researchers aligned to the former opposition in the troubled two-year coalition stayed away from sessions to rewrite the constitution Thursday. They said the meetings were suspended after President Robert Mugabe's party tried to give prominence to opinions from its rural strongholds.

The haggling is the latest in a string of delays to the constitutional reform program that was scheduled for completion last September.

Mugabe's party on Wednesday reaffirmed its call for elections this year even if reforms are not concluded.

Douglas Mwonzora, a co-chair of the panel and a lawmaker for the party of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, said Mugabe's party garnered more feedback from rural areas, often under pressure and threats from militants, during last year's constitutional outreach exercise.

More meetings to canvass for opinions on constitutional reform were held in rural areas, where most Zimbabweans live, than in Tsvangirai's urban strongholds, he said.

Mugabe's party had demanded the higher number of its submissions be taken into account.

"That is not fair. It is not just ... you will exaggerate the rural voice and emasculate the urban voice," Mwonzora said.

Rugare Gumbo, spokesman for Mugabe's party, on Thursday accused Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change of stalling the reforms in an attempt to delay fresh elections.

"They have nothing to offer the electorate and are trying evade elections. Why are they afraid of the masses?" he said.

He said a meeting of Mugabe's politburo, his ZANU-PF party's highest policy making body, on Wednesday resolved to uphold a decision of the party's convention in December to call elections this year with or without reforms demanded by regional leaders to ensure peaceful and free and fair polling.

"There is no change to our position. The politburo was unanimous we should forge ahead with the polls this year," he said.

Gumbo dismissed remarks by an aide of chief Zimbabwe mediator President Jacob Zuma of South Africa that reform of Zimbabwe's security sector, including the military and police loyal to Mugabe, was a priority ahead of any fresh elections.

Zimbabwe's coalition was formed after disputed, violent elections in 2008. Human rights groups reported most of that violence was state-orchestrated.

South African mediators have said they want to meet with generals and other security chiefs in Zimbabwe.

"Where on earth have you seen people coming to see security forces of another country? It is nonsensical," said Gumbo.