Damascus moment or ace up the sleeve?

HARARE - President Robert Mugabe has often shouted on top of his voice, fist clenched how he is determined to go for an election with or without a constitution and with or without the consent of coalition partners.

On Thursday he cast a different figure, agreeing to a raft of reforms under a draft constitution that would whittle down his powers — should he win the next elections.

“We will make a proclamation as to the way forward, that is stipulating our roadmap and state when the referendum will be held and indicate also when our elections would be forthcoming,” Mugabe said, longtime rivals Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Industry minister Welshman Ncube flanking him, smiles beaming.

Political rivals and analysts were astounded as Mugabe agreed to a draft constitution that heavily eats into his power and sets the country on a firm course for elections.

Yet, beyond the fiery speeches, the 89-year-old has long been working hard to ensure the constitution-writing process progresses to the wishes of regional Sadc leaders whose backing he badly needs in the face of hostility from the West.

Last week, the Zanu PF leader returned home, cutting short his month long holiday in the Far East to break a stalemate threatening to derail the entire project.

Despite reports of tension between the negotiating parties and a near breakdown of talks, Zanu PF and MDC negotiators worked round the clock through the festive season to try and reach a breakthrough.

They shared drinks and spent nights on end on dinner tables, jokes going round too as they sought to finalise the constitution-making process.

At the behest of Mugabe and Tsvangirai, a special cabinet committee was set up in order to break the constitution- making process impasse.

Areas of disagreement have been narrowed from 32 to just one and when new disagreements appeared between negotiators, Mugabe rounded his coalition partners and hammered but a deal that has left some in his own party worried.

For those fearing the worst, the deal last week is a sign of how the shaky coalition could still be counted on to deliver reforms after four years of bickering.

But that has not stopped the State machinery from working full throttle.

As Mugabe and Tsvangirai were shaking hands at State House, prominent human rights campaigner Okay Machisa was languishing in remand prison on charges his supporters say are fabricated.

A report released last week by the American based Human Rights Watch (HRW), says Zimbabwe is racing against time and cannot afford any election under the current conditions.

The report states that Zimbabwe needs to initiate constitutional, legislative and security sector reforms before it goes for another election.

“With the unity government making little progress in several areas, including on key legal reforms, there are genuine concerns that if elections are held in March, there will be widespread human rights violations ahead of, during and after the elections.

“Such violations will undermine a credible, free and fair vote.

Time is fast running out for the unity government to institute reforms, including finalising the new constitution and allowing time for its provisions to be implemented before elections are held,” states the report.

The report says “the unity government, supported by the Sadc, should urgently introduce and implement key human rights and institutional reforms as outlined in the Global Political Agreement (GPA)” in order to avoid chaos and lawlessness.

The regional grouping wants to avoid a replay of the violent 2008 elections and, for now, it appears they have Mugabe in their corner only if they can deal with resurgent violence.

Standing as the biggest stumbling block to reforms at the start, Mugabe has turned a master stroke, coming out as the man to salvage a key process that was on the rocks.

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