, MALABO, Nov 14 – More than 99 percent of Equatorial Guineans in votes counted so far have backed constitutional changes to limit presidents to serving two terms in a referendum dismissed by the opposition as a sham.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Africa’s longest-serving leader, supports the reforms, which are seen as part of a charm offensive to clean up the image of his oil-rich state, branded one of Africa’s most corrupt and autocratic.
But it is unclear whether Obiang will have to step down when his current term ends in 2016.
With 60 percent of votes counted, “99.04 percent voted yes and 0.96 percent no,” Information Minister and government spokesman Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro told AFP.
Apart from limiting presidential terms, the referendum also covered the amendment of the constitution to create a vice presidential post, with critics speculating the job could go to Obiang’s 41-year-old son, Teodoro Obiang Mangue.
The first son is reviled by many for his lavish lifestyle. He is best known for his love of sports cars and champagne and his $31-million home in Malibu, California.
The country’s main opposition party has accused the regime of manipulating the referendum.
Opposition leader Placido Mico Sunday pulled his agents out of polling stations citing widespread irregularities and the intimidation of his supporters.
Mico said he withdrew all representatives from his Convergence for Social Democracy party from polling stations after witnessing and hearing accounts of violations.
A young supporter of his party “was threatened with being tortured by a colonel” at a polling station in the capital Malabo, he said. Voters were facing pressure across the nation of 700,000, he added.
“There is no participation. It’s not going beyond 25 percent. I have visited some 50 polling stations since 11:00 am. No one is voting” said Mico, the sole opposition lawmaker in the country’s parliament.
Election officials had let unregistered people vote and voting was taking place in the open, rather than in isolated voting booths, Mico added.
“That is prohibited”, he said.
Voter turnout figures were not yet available after 1,500 polling stations countrywide closed at 6:00 pm local time (1700 GMT) on Sunday. About 300,000 Equatorial Guineans were eligible to vote.
The electoral commission is due to release the final results on Wednesday.
Osa Osa Ecoro said the vote passed off peacefully and said the outcome “was a good thing for Equatorial Guinea. It is a project for the political, economic, social and cultural future. The people are delighted.”
Obiang, 69, is serving his fourth seven-year term since he seized power in a 1979 coup, usurping his notoriously ruthless uncle Francisco Macias Nguema who was executed by firing squad.
In much criticised elections in 2009, Obiang received 95.37 percent of the vote and in 2002, 97.1 percent.
He organised the referendum because he “wants his country, long ignored or despised, to acquire a diplomatic status that matches its new financial weight,” said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The regime says the new constitution would also impose more checks and balances on the executive, improve the judicial system and ensure better protection of civil rights.
But opposition leader Mico criticised a lack of consultation ahead of the vote.
“No one has seen the text, not the cabinet or any official body,” he said. “We are submitting a text to a referendum that no one has seen. It’s an invisible text.”
In the mid-1990s oil was discovered in the little-known nation. Today, it is the continent’s third sub-Saharan oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola.
Obiang has in part used oil revenues to bankroll a series of infrastructure projects, including those to accommodate the 2012 Orange Africa Cup of Nations football tournament, which Equatorial Guinea will co-host with neighbouring Gabon.