ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Voters in Ivory Coast cast their ballots on Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to approve a new constitution that President Alassane Ouattara argues will guarantee peace in the wake of years of political turmoil.
Under Ouattara, Ivory Coast has made an impressive recovery since a 2011 civil war capped a decade-long crisis. The International Monetary Fund projects it will be Africa’s fastest growing economy this year.
Despite five years of peace, however, Ivorians remain deeply divided along political and ethnic fault lines. And both they and the investors who are now flooding in crave the stability that will allow the world’s top cocoa grower to cement its status as the continent’s rising star.
“It’s a good constitution that will change the country,” said Assana Toure, 60, who voted early on Sunday in the Yopougon neighbourhood of the commercial capital Abidjan. “There will no longer be disagreements over a lot of things.”
Opposition parties have called for a boycott, arguing that the new text was designed to further entrench Ouattara’s political coalition. And so, while the “yes” vote is heavily favoured, turnout will be key to determining whether the text has the widespread backing of the people.
The current constitution, drafted under military rule after a 1999 coup, was at the heart of Ivory Coast’s prolonged unrest.
In its most controversial clause, it says presidential candidates’ parents must both be natural born Ivorians – a deliberate swipe at northerners, many of whom, like Ouattara, have family ties that straddle the borders with Burkina Faso and Mali.
The new constitution scraps that rule, which was used to disqualify Ouattara from a poll in 2000, and now only one parent must be Ivorian. It also creates a post of vice president and a senate. The president says all these new measures will guarantee more political stability.
However, the new text also allows future changes to the constitution to go ahead without a referendum and with just a two thirds majority in parliament – a body now heavily dominated by Ouattara’s allies – a fact that has raised concern among some rights groups.
Some civil society groups and diplomats, meanwhile, have criticised the process of drafting the text and submitting it to a plebiscite as rushed and lacking transparency. Voters have had just two and a half weeks to review the 184-article charter.
Rights groups also worry that a two-ballot system introduced for the referendum – whereby voters receive a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ ballot, instead of one paper with a box to sign their preference – could open the door to fraud during the vote. Ouattara dismissed that concern as unfounded during a meeting with civil society leaders last week.
(Reporting by Joe Bavier and Loucoumane Coulibaly; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Susan Fenton)