HARARE, March 19 (Xinhua) -- A draft constitution that limits the presidential term and protects a wide range of individual rights has been approved by the vast majority of Zimbabwean voters, the country's election body announced Tuesday.
The passage of the draft, which still needs endorsement of the parliament, will set the stage for presidential elections slated later this year, an expected fierce battle in which long-time ruling President Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF will pit against arch rival Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of MDC-T to end the troubled four-year-old coalition government.
Lovemore Sekeramyi, chief elections officer, told reporters in Harare on Tuesday that the draft passed by over 3 million votes while only less than 180, 000 people voted against it. The election body previously said there are about 6 million eligible voters across the country.
Southern African Development Community Observation Mission, which led the largest international observers team for the referendum, said in a statement Tuesday that in general the polling process was conducted in "a peaceful, transparent and smooth manner."
"Although some of the concerns raised are pertinent, they are, nevertheless, not of such magnitude as to affect the credibility of the overall referendum," the statement said.
The charter 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 Mugabe, already the eldest African leader at the age of 89, could continue to rule until he turns 99 in 2023.
The charter also protects a wide range of individual freedoms, curtails police powers and introduces a constitutional court.
After the announcement, the parliament is expected to convene to adopt the draft before it becomes effective.
All of the country's major political parties have agreed upon the draft.
The new constitution draft seeks to replace the current one written at Lancaster House, London, prior to Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980.
The constitutional process started after the power-sharing government was formed in the wake of the inconclusive presidential elections in 2008.
The ease of political strains since then has helped the country bottom out from the economic abyss particularly marked by a hyper- inflation but Zimbabwe, once the bread basket for Africa, remains financially beleaguered today. Both Mugabe and Tsvangirai want the elections to end the coalition government so that they can effectively push forward their reform agenda.