By Cris Chinaka
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's Constitutional Court ordered President Robert Mugabe on Friday to hold elections before the end of July, adding to the political wrangling over the timing and funding of the vote in the southern African state.
It was ruling on an application to the court by a Zimbabwean citizen demanding that Mugabe set an election date before the current parliament expires next month.
Mugabe, 89 and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is to face long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai in the vote.
Tsvangirai and his MDC party have been arguing that the election, after disputed polls in 2008 that led to the formation of a power-sharing government, should be delayed and the date be determined by the reforms necessary to achieve a credible vote.
His MDC says this will allow for the opening up of broadcast media, registration of new voters and reform of the military to ensure it stays out of politics.
A Zimbabwean rights activist, Jealousy Mawarire, filed the case with the Constitutional Court challenging Mugabe to set dates for the presidential and parliamentary election by June 29, arguing the executive risked violating the constitution.
"The elections should take place no later than 31st July 2013," Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku said.
Chidyausiku, whose ruling was supported by six other judges, said it was now legally impossible to hold elections by June 29, but that Mugabe had violated Mawarire's rights as a voter by not proclaiming an election date so far.
There was no immediate response from the presidency or his ZANU-PF party but lawyers say Mugabe could seek an extension on the July 31 date through the courts.
Constitutional law professor Lovemore Madhuku said although it was possible for the courts to review the order, to take into account difficulties for having elections by July 31, it would not be ideal because Zimbabwe would be ruled by presidential decree after June 29, when parliament was set to be dissolved.
"The president must be subjected to constitutionalism and the two months the court has given the government is sufficient time to hold elections," he said.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti, a top member of Prime Minister Tsvangirai's MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), has said the country is struggling to find $132 million needed to hold the election. Regional leaders have called a summit to help Harare raise the money.
Biti also said uncertainty over the election date could have caused the economy to shrink by as much as 3 percent in the first quarter and was pushing it closer to recession just as it was pulling out of a decade of decline.
ZANU-PF wants election funding with as few strings as possible. It withdrew a request to the United Nations to fund the poll, accusing it of trying to interfere in domestic issues.
The MDC is keen to attach the money to the deployment of election observers. It fears ZANU-PF, whose members are under Western sanctions for suspected rigging of previous votes, will use the security forces to intimidate voters.
Any repeat of violence that accompanied the last vote in 2008 could end the nascent economy recovery and unleash another refugee crisis similar to the one five years ago when hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring South Africa.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Alison Williams)