Ivory Coast votes on divisive new constitution
Voters in Ivory Coast went to the polls Sunday to determine the fate of constitutional changes that President Alassane Ouattara says will help end years of instability and unrest linked to the vexed issue of national identity.
The package put to the country’s 6.3 million voters has alarmed opposition leaders and left much of the electorate confused, analysts say.
Commentators say turnout is the main question, as there seems to be little doubt the changes will be approved.
Ouattara’s revised constitution would create a vice president picked by the president, and set up a senate, a third of whom would be nominated by the head of state.
It would also suppress a contested clause on national identity — the so-called “Ivorian-ness” clause which took effect in 2000 and stipulates that both parents of a presidential candidate must be born on Ivorian soil and not have sought nationality in another country.
The issue has contributed to years of unrest in the West African country. Violent episodes include a coup in 1999, a civil war in 2002 that split the country between its north and south and a bloody post-election crisis in 2010.
The most recent eruption led to months of post-poll bloodshed with then-president Laurent Gbagbo refusing to step down.
Some 3,000 people died and Gbagbo is now on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
– ‘Ivorian-ness’ problem –
Ouattara hails from central Ivory Coast but his father was born in neighbouring Burkina Faso and the issue of “Ivorian-ness” raised a hurdle in his bid for the presidency.
He eventually overcame this obstacle through a decree Gbagbo was pressured to sign by the international community.
The proposed new constitution, which parliament has overwhelmingly approved, would see the creation of the post of vice president, who would appear on the ballot with presidential candidates.
The government claims the idea is to ensure continuity if the head of state dies or is incapacitated.
Critics though have speculated that Ouattara is trying to line up a successor for when his term ends in 2020. The opposition sees the change as a “monarchistic tactic”.
The draft also establishes a new legislative chamber in the form of a senate, two-thirds of whose members would be elected, with the remaining third appointed by the president.
Ouattara “is treating Ivory Coast as if it were his personal property. What he is offering is less than a constitution. It is a will and testament designed to distribute his country to his successors so it stays in the family,” said the head of the Ivorian Popular Front, the opposition party founded by Gbagbo.
US-based Human Rights Watch has warned that despite campaigning many Ivorians are still none the wiser about what they are voting for.
“There is little engagement,” said researcher Meite Mamoudou who, like many observers, expects that many people simply would not bother to vote.
Polling stations opened at 0800 GMT, but there were delays in some parts of Abidjan, the country’s economic capital, due to lack of equipment, including envelopes in which to place ballot papers.
Voting was to close at 1800 GMT. An electoral commission source said the counting should be finished “by the end of Monday, Tuesday at the latest”.