Zimbabwe's constitutional affairs minister says a referendum on a new constitution has been "tentatively" set for March 16 to be followed by fresh elections later in the year to end the nation's shaky coalition government.
State radio reported Thursday that Eric Matinenga, an aide of former opposition leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, said President Robert Mugabe is expected to officially proclaim the date in a government notice on Friday. Voting is scheduled for one day, a departure from the routine two days of polling, state radio said.
Matinenga called for the suspension of sweeping security laws in the run-up to vote on the constitution. Under those laws, police clearance is required for political gatherings.
Advocacy groups say such a hasty poll prevents adequate voter education on the rewritten constitution.
The draft constitution was completed on Feb. 6 after three years of disputes, bickering and delays. Democratic reforms to the constitution were a key demand of regional mediators after violent and disputed elections in 2008.
Crisis in Zimbabwe, an alliance of rights and democracy activists, said Thursday the proposed date left far too little time to complete countrywide distribution of the draft and permit voters to become familiar with it, raising fears over the credibility of a rushed vote.
All the country's political leaders have called for a 'Yes' vote to allow the constitution to be accepted and signed into law by Mugabe without any further changes.
An estimated $200 million has still to be found to pay for the constitutional referendum and the parliamentary and presidential elections, possibly three months later.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti told lawmakers Wednesday what he called "a massive fund-raising exercise" is under way and the United Nations asked for a breakdown of election expenses so it could contribute. The United States, Britain, the former colonial power, the European Union and other Western donors are not expected to weigh in without being allowed to send in their own election monitors.
Mugabe expelled European Union monitors in 2002 and since then the government has restrict those permitted to be official observers in two national elections, both of which were marred by violence and alleged vote rigging. In 2008, Zimbabwe invited China, Russia and Iran to observe the polls.
The all-party parliamentary panel in charge of the constitutional changes said in a statement Wednesday it is printing 90,000 copies of the draft, some in an abridged version, and 500 copies in braille, for distribution starting Monday.
Zimbabwe has nearly 6 million registered voters.