Voters in Ivory Coast cast their ballots in a referendum on Sunday 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 an opportunity but also a duty,” Ouattara said after voting in the commercial capital Abidjan. “Turning the page on the crisis born of the constitution of 2000 is essential for the future of our nation.”
Opposition parties have called for a boycott of the vote, arguing that the new text was designed to further entrench Ouattara’s political coalition. So, while the “yes” vote is heavily favored, voter participation will be key to determining whether the text has the widespread backing.
By midday, turnout in Abidjan was visibly lower than during last year’s presidential election when 54.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said incidents of suspected opposition supporters using violence to impede the vote had been recorded in around 100 polling stations in Abidjan and western Ivory Coast. But he said they would not affect the results.
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 criticized 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.
“I’m not voting,” said a woman cooking at a roadside open-air restaurant in Abidjan’s Cocody neighborhood, who declined to give her name. “In just two weeks people are supposed to understand and vote on a constitution? They’re imposing this.”
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.