Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] on Wednesday signed the country's new constitution [text] into law, clearing the path to pivotal elections later this year. The new constitution limits future presidents to two five-year terms. The provision limiting presidential terms will not apply retroactively, so the 89-year-old Mugabe will be able to run in the next election [Reuters report] and potentially continue to serve as president for the next decade. Mugabe has been Zimbabwe's president since the country's independence from Britain in 1980. Wednesday's actions come as a result of a January agreement [JURIST report] between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai [BBC profile; JURIST news archive], who both pledged their support for the new constitution. In 2008 the two political rivals formed a coalition government following highly contested elections [JURIST reports], ultimately finding a compromise to hold elections on the condition that a new constitution was enacted beforehand. Elections should take place within the year, but the date has yet to be determined.
In March in a nationwide referendum [JURIST report], nearly 95 percent of voters supported the passage of the draft constitution, which then passed completely unopposed through both houses of Parliament. In February three UN independent human rights experts urged [JURIST report] the government of Zimbabwe to respect international human rights in anticipation of the referendum and potential changes to the system of government. The UN's emphasis on the protection of individuals' right to privacy and freedom of association accompanied Human Rights Watch's [advocacy website] call for "credible, free and fair elections," a proposition that the advocacy group claims Zimbabwe failed to ensure [JURIST report] in previous elections. Experts point to incidents such as the March 17 arrest [Bloomberg report] of four Tsvangirai aides, working for the prime minister's political party the Movement for Democratic Change [official website]. Held on charges of breaching state secrecy law, the arrests follow a string of allegations against political associates, including human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa who is being charged with obstructing or defeating the course of justice [JURIST report].