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Scuffles as Ivory Coast votes on divisive constitution

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Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara casts his vote in the ballot box, at a polling station in Abidjan, on October 30, 2016, during a vote for a referendum on a new constitution. Voters in Ivory Coast went to the polls on October 30, 2016 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. / AFP PHOTO / SIA KAMBOU

Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara casts his vote in the ballot box, at a polling station in Abidjan, on October 30, 2016, during a vote for a referendum on a new constitution. Voters in Ivory Coast went to the polls on October 30, 2016 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. / AFP PHOTO / SIA KAMBOU

Ivorians voted Sunday to determine the fate of constitutional changes the president says will help end years of unrest but which have alarmed the opposition, with scuffles erupting at dozens of polling stations.

The package put to the country’s 6.3 million voters is being boycotted by the opposition and has 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 given the boycott.

Two opposition coalitions claimed turnout was very low, estimating only between three and seven percent of eligible voters had cast a ballot. Official figures have yet to be released.

“The results… show that the project and President Alassane Ouattara (have) been rejected by the people,” Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) head Pascal Affi Nguessan told AFP, claiming a “resounding success” for the boycott call.

“It is up to President Ouattara to draw conclusions (…) Either he withdraws the text, or he resigns,” he said.

An electoral commission source has said the counting should be finished “by the end of Monday, Tuesday at the latest”.

President Ouattara’s revised constitution would create the post of a vice president, and set up a senate, a third of which 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.

– ‘Ivorian-ness’ issue –
The issue of identity has contributed to years of unrest in the West African country, which suffered 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 electoral crisis 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 crimes against humanity.

Shortly after the polls opened, trouble broke out in the economic capital Abidjan and elsewhere, with groups of youths storming several voting stations and damaging equipment, Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said.

Bakayoko described incidents at “around 100” of the country’s 20,000 polling stations.

“They started by throwing stones… then they came in and broke everything…. They told us to stop working ‘because the constitution doesn’t meet the people’s expectations’,” an official, Nandy Bamba, told AFP.

“It’s a way of intimidating (us) but we are not afraid,” said trader Bahdjata Cisse who voted in favour of the changes.

With the outcome in little doubt, the participation rate will be the main issue.

After the 1999 coup, the current second constitution was approved in August 2000 by 87 percent of votes cast, with a participation rate of 56 percent.

The opposition and some observers believe Sunday’s vote will need at least a similar turnout to be legitimate.

AFP journalists noted no large crowds voting, with a survey by AFP showing turnout of between 20 percent and 46 percent at a selection of polling stations around the country.

Casting his ballot at an Abidjan school, Ouattara appeared confident.

“It is essential for our nation’s future to turn the page on the crisis created by the constitution of the year 2000,” he said.

Ouattara is from 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.

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.

– ‘Little engagement’ –
Critics have speculated that Ouattara is trying to line up a successor for when his term ends in 2020.

Ouattara “is treating Ivory Coast as if it were his personal property,” Nguessan has said previously. His FPI party was founded by Gbagbo.

“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.”

Some voters welcomed the chance to have their voices heard.

“I am voting for the sake of my children,” 61-year-old TV engineer Soro Seydou told AFP in the nation’s second city Bouake.

Others, however, had vowed to stay away.

“There is little engagement,” said researcher Meite Mamoudou who, like many observers, expected that many people simply will not have bothered to vote.



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