Referendum Sparks Controversy in the Ivory Coast
By Delilah Gutierrez
The 6.3 million citizens of Cote d’Ivoire have been called upon to vote on a referendum on a new constitution, as reported by The New York Times. Voter turnout, however, has been low due to violence at polling stations and a widespread discontent with the constitution text.
Yopougon, a suburb of the capital Abidjan, has shown a zero percent voter turnout due to violence at ballot boxes all around the area. The situation is quite the same in all areas of the Ivory Coast; Gagnoa, Banglo, Divo, and many other populated areas all suffered intense violence at the polling venues.
Low voter turnout was caused by more than just violence, as reported by VOA Afrique. Some voters have expressed distress about the need to make a decision on the referendum, convinced that their vote will not change how the constitution affects their everyday life. Others simply do not understand the text. Last year’s presidential election showed a dangerously low participation rate associated with the high illiteracy rate in Cote d’Ivoire.
In the lead up to the referendum campaign on October 22, security forces dispersed crowds of people opposed to the Constitution at least twice and briefly detained several opposition leaders. Several other opposition rallies, however, occurred without any incidents. Due to the opposition campaign’s lack of resources, limited access to the media, and suspension of the opposition- led newspapers just before the campaigning period, the group has experienced major setbacks in expressing their position to the public.
The “yes” campaign has been led by the President Alassane Ouattara, as well as a second legislative chamber and one-third of the members personally appointed by the president, as reported by Abidjan. Although the Constitution maintains a two-term limit for presidents, it does not require that the president submit all proposed constitutional amendments to a referendum. The opposition parties have criticized the system, arguing that it will make it easier for presidents to force their future constitutional changes upon the people of the country.
The text of the new referendum, which was approved by the members of parliament on October 11, proposes several major fundamental changes. One proposal would erase the former requirement that mandated the president be born of both a father and mother of Ivorian origin. According to proposed article 55, any candidate must be of Ivorian nationality, although their heritage may derive from either their father or mother. This would prevent the exclusion of candidates on the basis of their origin.
Another proposed change would call for the suspension of the age limit, which would give President Ouattara the chance to run for president again. Several other of the changes that are in discussion for approval lie along these lines of fundamental government and structural changes.
The need for so many amendments is unclear to the Ivorian population, possibly due to the explanation and consultations that were given to the public and opposition parties prior to the drafting. The public discussions that took place were described by the attendees and opposition to be brief and superficial.
Nevertheless, this controversial constitutional referendum has sparked distrust amongst the people of Cote d’Ivoire and is enticing the opposition to take as much action as they feel necessary. The opposition has called for a boycott of the referendum on the new constitution on November 6.