Zimbabwe court orders national polls by July 31

Associated Press
FILE -  In this Wednesday May 22, 2013  file photo Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after he signed the  new constitution into law at State  house in Harare.  Zimbabwes highest court on Friday May 31, 2013  ordered President Robert Mugabe  to hold elections by the end of July, chiding the longtime leader for what it said was a ''violation of his duties'' for not proclaiming the date earlier. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)
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FILE - In this Wednesday May 22, 2013 file photo Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai after he signed the new constitution into law at State house in Harare. Zimbabwes highest court on Friday May 31, 2013 ordered President Robert Mugabe to hold elections by the end of July, chiding the longtime leader for what it said was a ''violation of his duties'' for not proclaiming the date earlier. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, File)

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's highest court on Friday ordered President Robert Mugabe to hold elections by the end of July, chiding the longtime leader for what it said was a "violation of his duties" in not proclaiming a date for the vote earlier.

Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku said the election date should be linked to the automatic dissolution of Zimbabwe's parliament on June 29 at the end of its current five-year term.

A new constitution overwhelmingly accepted in a March 16 referendum requires amendments to electoral laws and voting procedures that lawyers' groups say need about two months to complete.

Veritas, an independent legal research group, said Friday that the court's July date is impractical.

A lawsuit was brought to the court on May 24 to force Mugabe to call early polls. The private court application claimed the country could not be run without the existence of the parliament, rendering the government illegal.

But Veritas said the constitution allows for the executive arm and government ministries to continue operating without a sitting parliament for up to four months after the legislature dissolves on June 29.

Judge Chidyausiku, sitting alongside eight senior judges in the Constitutional Court, said their ruling ordered elections to be held by July 31. He described Mugabe's failure to announce the election date as "a violation of his duties."

Two judges dissented.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader in a shaky coalition with Mugabe after violent and disputed elections in 2008, wants a vote that would end their power-sharing agreement to be held in September at the earliest.

Tsvangirai said in a statement Friday that the court had no power to set an election date and the judges had "overstepped their mandate."

Zimbabweans still expect electoral and wider reforms along with an intensive voter registration campaign "that would not have anyone unnecessarily disenfranchised" in the upcoming elections, he said.

The judgment was not available later Friday for legal experts to comment. But they did say an appeal cannot be made on the Constitutional Court's ruling and only parliament can pass a law to overturn it.

Mugabe's fractious ZANU-PF party has repeatedly called for early polls to endorse Mugabe, 89, for another five-year presidential term. Mugabe led the nation to independence from colonial rule in 1980.

The new constitution limits the presidential office to two five-year terms but is not retroactive, allowing Mugabe if re-elected to serve up to age 99.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to host the U.N. World Tourism Organization summit in mid-August. An estimated 2,000 foreign delegates are expected to attend and a bitterly contested poll shortly before would likely raise concerns among organizers.

Previous elections since 2000 have been marred by violence, political intimidation and allegations of vote-rigging.

Veritas said disobeying a constitutional court ruling could lead to contempt of court proceedings. But contempt charges in the past against at least two of Mugabe's senior ministers were ignored and no further action was taken.

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