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HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has set March 16 as the date for a referendum on a proposed new constitution, a crucial step towards a general election late in the year to end a four-year coalition government.

Adoption of a new constitution seems almost certain since both Mugabe's and rival Morgan Tsvangirai's parties have backed it. Once enacted, it will pave way for presidential and parliamentary elections that Tsvangirai said this week were expected in July.

"I consider it desirable to ascertain the view of voters on whether or not the said draft constitution should be enacted as the Constitution of Zimbabwe," Mugabe's notice, released on Friday, said.

"Now, therefore... I do, by this proclamation, appoint Saturday the 16th March 2013 as the day on which the referendum will be held."

The proposed supreme law, agreed to by the coalition partners in January and approved by parliament this month, seeks to curb sweeping presidential powers while strengthening state institutions such as the cabinet, parliament and judiciary.

Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai formed a power-sharing government after a disputed 2008 vote and agreed to hold fresh polls only after adopting a new constitution.

By law, the next elections are due when the current presidential and parliamentary terms expire at the end of June, although there has been speculation that Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai's MDC could extend it while working on more political reforms.

The 88-year-old Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, faces an uphill task to retain power in a country struggling to recover from a decade-long economic slump that many blame on him.

(Reporting by Nelson Banya; Editing by Jon Herskovitz)

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