A woman votes at a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 16, 2013. Zimbabweans on Saturday started voting on the country's new constitution which will, for the first time, limit the term of a president. If the draft passes, it will replace the constitution written on the eve of the southern African country's independence from Britain in 1980 and paves way for the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. (Xinhua/Li Ping)
By Tichaona Chifamba, Gretinah Machingura and Xu Lingui
HARARE, March 16 (Xinhua) -- Peace prevails Saturday as Zimbabweans vote in a referendum that may bring positive changes to this southern African country.
The draft chapter is a major stepping stone for general elections set for late 2013. It for the first time limits a president to two five-year terms, but is not retroactive, meaning President Mugabe, already the eldest African leader at the age of 89, could continue to rule until he turns 99 in 2023.
Mugabe and his family on Saturday cast their votes at Mhofu Primary School in Highfield, where he has voted in all elections since the country's independence three decades ago. The school is just a stone-throw away from his Highfield home which has since been turned into a tourist attraction.
Mugabe said the proposed constitution would also provide for the right of Zimbabweans to own their natural resources and that all had equality to life and freedom, including the right to education and health.
"We shall not brook those people who want to spoil our country by stealing that which does not belong to them," he added.
The powers of the different organs of the state -- judiciary, parliament and the executive -- were also clearly outlined in the proposed constitution, he added.
Mugabe's Zanu-PF party is urging the people to vote "yes".
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC-T party also want the people to vote "yes" so that the nation retires the current constitution crafted in London on the eve of the country's independence from Britain in 1980 and which has now been amended 19 times.
Tsvangirai, who cast his vote in the town of Chitungwiza to the south of Harare, urged the people to exercise their rights by voting.
According to a roadmap agreed by the parties in the inclusive government, fresh elections will be held after the writing of a new constitution.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) brokered a power-sharing agreement involving the three parties which had won legislative seats in the 2008 elections, which did not turn out to be conclusive with no outright winner. There were also concerns over the conduct of the presidential election.
The referendum marks the end to a long and arduous journey that should have taken 18 months to complete but ended up overshooting the target date by more than 24 months.
Tomaz Salomao, SADC executive secretary who leads a 200-strong observer team of the bloc, said though there were reports of violence ahead of referendum, it was on "small" scale.
"And far as what we see today, it is peaceful," Salomao said, adding that the group of observers would issue a formal report on Sunday.
Apart from concerns from various interested groups and ordinary people over the way the proposed constitution was put up, many people have also complained that they are voting blindly and simply following the wishes of the political parties they follow.
"We were not given enough time to scrutinize the draft. In fact I personally have had no sight of it, but here am I casting my vote because my party said I should vote in a particular way," said Prince Ushamba, who said he cast his vote in Central Harare.
Another voter who declined to be named said he was voting on the basis of information provided showing the goodness of the draft.
"I didn't see it. I have only been told that it is a good document and that it is far much better than the current constitution. That is all I know, and no one else has really come out criticizing it in a manner that is as convincing as those who support it. So you know where my vote is."
Xinhua also spoke to one woman who said she would not vote for something whose contents she did not know.
"I say yes to what? I say no to what?" she asked.
But speaking to the reporters, Mugabe defended the referendum process. He said while some people complained that they did not have enough time to study the draft, the text was written in a way that reflect the will of the people as the mass was duly consulted when the constitution was drafted and, for many times, revised.
The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJPZ) said in a statement during the week that it was, however, concerned about presidential powers which it said were "still a bit too much, especially the one to dissolve parliament"; and the president's monopoly in announcing election dates.
Despite the concern, the CCJPZ said that by comparison, the draft was better than the one crafted at Lancaster House because of an enlarged Bill of Rights.
It said although the Bill of Rights was limited, it provided for the respect of human life.
The Lancaster House Constitution allows for capital punishment whilst the current draft only talks about death penalty under circumstances of aggravated murder. The CCJPZ would have wished the scrapping off of death penalty, but abolishing death sentences for women, men aged 21 years and below and 70 years and above is, we believe, a preparatory step for the complete abolition of capital punishment, the statement added.
The CCJPZ added that another relative advantage of the draft was that in principle it allowed the devolution of power, which meant that more decisions would be made by citizens than a central authority.
The draft also prohibits same sex marriages.
Women will be treated equally as men and have similar opportunities, including economic empowerment and have 50 percent representation in elected positions.
Youths and veterans of the country's war of independence will also recognized in the draft, with concern being also on the need to economically empower them.
The draft also acknowledges the richness of the country's natural resources, recognizes the irreversibility of the land reform program, and ensures communities benefit from resources in their areas and that all previously marginalized people are economically empowered.
It also allows dual citizenship, establishment of a National Prosecuting Authority, an expanded Bill of Rights limiting the death sentence, fixed terms for service chiefs and heads of parastatals and other government institutions and creates institutions that promote democracy, peace, transparency and accountability.