Ivory Coast votes on new constitution

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The Independent Online

In a test of the ruling junta's willingness to follow through on a promise to return this West African nation to civilian rule, Ivorians turned out Sunday to decide whether to approve a new constitution.

In a test of the ruling junta's willingness to follow through on a promise to return this West African nation to civilian rule, Ivorians turned out Sunday to decide whether to approve a new constitution.

Polling began later than the scheduled 8 a.m. (0800 GMT) opening at some stations, but by late morning hundreds of people were lined up in some neighborhoods.

Adding to the often-disorganized process, many of the 4.8 million registered voters were still waiting for their voting cards Sunday. Ivory Coast has about 19 million residents, though some 40 percent are immigrants who cannot vote.

The government declared a state of emergency ahead of the referendum - which many see as a junta plan to exclude the main opposition leader - but while the city was unusually quiet Sunday, there were no signs of violence.

All the country's main political parties, including the opposition, have called on supporters to vote in favor of the draft constitution.

Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei accused opponents in a statement last week of "maneuvering in the shadows to orchestrate an active boycott of the referendum."

The state of emergency runs until Monday in industrial and commercial areas and until Tuesday in other parts of the former French colony, which before a Dec. 24 coup was considered a bastion of stability in volatile West Africa.

The junta increased security at key facilities such as the national radio and television stations, the international airport and Guei's residence.

Hundreds of armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Abidjan's more crowded neighborhoods, particularly opposition strongholds, starting late Saturday night.

Tensions have risen in Ivory Coast since a two-day mutiny in early July when rioting soldiers demanded perks they said were promised them for supporting the December takeover that brought Guei to power.

Guei accused politicians of trying to foment another coup and arrested 35 soldiers in connection with the rebellion.

Although the December coup was initially popular among many Ivorians, who had grown tired of corruption and ethnic favoritism under ousted President Henri Konan Bedie, many have since become disillusioned with the new regime.

Guei, a former army chief, has promised presidential elections for Sept. 17 but has not said whether he will run.

The referendum is seen largely as a vote on who could be the country's next president.

A last-minute amendment to the draft constitution stipulates that both parents of presidential candidates must be "of Ivorian origin" - a change widely believed to be aimed at excluding the leader of the country's main opposition party, the Rally of the Republicans, from running for office.

The party's chief, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, has nevertheless encouraged his followers to vote "yes." He maintains he is unaffected by the change.

Ouattara, a former prime minister and top official with the International Monetary Fund, was at the center of controversy over similar eligibility conditions under Bedie.

Bedie accused Ouattara, who comes from the north of the country, of not being eligible for the presidency because his parents are from neighboring Burkina Faso. Ouattara says his parents were Ivorian.

Bedie's ethnically divisive policies were a major reason Guei gave for his takeover. Now many Ivorians see Guei's modification to the proposed constitution as fueling the divisions.

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