Good news for Zimbabwe, at last

The European Union has announced the suspension of most of its sanctions against Zimbabwe, in response to that country’s recent successful constitutional referendum. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign minister, says the new constitution is a “major step” towards “peaceful, transparent and credible elections” for Zimbabwe.

Sanctions were imposed on a range of Zimbabwe officials and firms in 2002 as a response to increasing violence and authoritarianism. They have not all been lifted; the statement says that “A number of key decision makers will remain subject to restrictive measures until peaceful, transparent and credible elections have been achieved.” The BBC report specifies that the continuing sanctions cover two firms and ten individuals, including president Robert Mugabe.

The referendum was approved, as expected, by an overwhelming majority, reported as 94.5%. Turnout was low, but apparently somewhat above expectations – either a little above or a little below 50% (reports vary). Voting seems to have been peaceful and above board, although there are continued human rights issues, notably with a police raid on the opposition’s offices and the arrest and detention of lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa (since released on bail).

Among the new constitution’s provisions are a guarantee of freedom of expression, a “peace and reconciliation” commission and term limits for the presidency. The latter will ensure that Mugabe cannot serve more than another two five-year terms, although since he is already 89 the limitation is mostly symbolic.

Conducting a fair referendum is certainly a step forward, but it remains to be seen whether Zimbabwe can complete the process by holding free and fair elections. If it does, it’s hard to imagine that Mugabe could win re-election, although stranger things have happened.

In other referendum news, Scotland’s chief minister has announced the date – 18 September 2014 – for a referendum in which Scots will vote on whether to reclaim the independence that they gave up a little over three hundred years ago.

Opinion polls have shown that a clear but generally declining majority of Scots would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom. But a lot can happen in 18 months, so this will be very much one to watch.


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