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Ivory Coast votes on divisive new constitution

People with placards reading ‘Referendum October 30, 2016 – I vote yes’ cheer during a rally organised by Ivory Coast’s president Alassane Ouattara, at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny stadium in Abidjan, on October 22, 2016 © AFP/File / Issouf Sanogo

ABIDJAN, Oct 30 – Ivory Coast goes to the polls on Sunday to vote on constitutional changes that President Alassane Ouattara says will help to end years of instability and unrest linked to the vexed issue of “Ivorian-ness”.

The draft constitution put forward by Ouattara — which parliament overwhelmingly approved earlier this week — would also create a vice president picked by the president and a senate, a third of whom would be nominated by the head of state.

The controversial package of changes has succeeded in both alarming opposition leaders and leaving much of the electorate confused.

“All this, it’s madness! What concerns us is the cost of living and getting out of poverty. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor,” said Bamory Kone, a mechanic in Adjame, an area that mostly supported Ouattara’s run for the top job in 2015.

“The constitution won’t change anything. I won’t be going to vote,” he added.

A supporter of the Ivorian Popular Front (IPF) party holds a sign reading ‘No to the new constitution’, in Port-Bouet, a commune of Abidjan, on September 17, 2016 © AFP/File / Issouf Sanogo

The draft constitution notably suppresses a clause on national identity — the so-called “Ivorian-ness” clause which took effect in 2000, and also 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, including a coup in 1999, a civil war in 2002 that split the country between its north and south and a violent post-election crisis in 2010.

The most recent 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 war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Ouattara hails from central Ivory Coast but his father was born in neighbouring Burkina Faso and the issue of identity 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.

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– Voters none the wiser –

Members of the parliament of Ivory Coast cast their ballots during the vote for the adoption of new constitution, on October 11, 2016 at the National Assembly in Abidjan © AFP/File / Issouf Sanogo

The proposed new constitution also calls for the creation of the post of vice president, who would appear on the ballot with presidential candidates.

For the government, it would ensure continuity if the head of state died or was incapacitated. But critics have speculated that he 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 will not bother to vote.

Some 6.3 million people are eligible to vote.

The country’s 20,000 polling stations will open from 0800 GMT and close at 1800 GMT.

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

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