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Election rule raising tensions in Ivory Coast

Leader changes eligibility law to run for president

SHARE Election rule raising tensions in Ivory Coast

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — In a region plagued by coups and civil wars, this West African nation was always the holdout, the bastion of peace and prosperity.

Those days are over.

Ivory Coast now has a military government, an angry soldier corps that has staged two mutinies since its Christmas Eve coup and an economy hobbled by low prices for cocoa and coffee, the country's two main exports.

The latest standoff — what people here called "the battle of the conjunctions" — was waged ahead of today's referendum to approve a new constitution. The fight was over just one word, but at stake was the Ivorian presidency.

Earlier this week, military leader Gen. Robert Guei decreed that the tentative constitution would state that a presidential candidate's mother "and" father should both be Ivorian.

The modification of the seemingly innocuous clause — which had previously required that a candidate's mother "or" father be Ivorian — has heightened ethnic and political tension in this country, which has a population made up of about 40 percent immigrants.

On Friday, the Ivorian government declared a state of emergency to ensure that Sunday's vote goes smoothly, increasing security at key installations.

Hundreds of armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Abidjan's more populous neighborhoods ahead of a 10 p.m. curfew on Saturday. During the day, shops were open.

Sunday's referendum is seen as a crucial test of the government's willingness to follow through on its promise to return Ivory Coast to democratic rule.

Although the December coup was initially popular with Ivorians, many have since become disillusioned with the new regime. Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei, a former army chief, has promised presidential elections for Sept. 17 but has not said whether he will run.

U.S. Ambassador George Mu told journalists at a recent news conference that the United States would look unfavorably at Guei's running for president.

"As a member of the coup, he has a very strong voice and therefore should not stand for elections," he said.

Many believe Guei's last-minute change to the proposed constitution is aimed at excluding the leader of the country's main opposition party, the Rally of the Republicans, from running for president.

The party's chief, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, a former prime minister and top official with the International Monetary Fund, was at the center of a controversy over similar eligibility conditions under the country's former president, Henri Konan Bedie, who was ousted by Guei's supporters.

Bedie accused Ouattara, who comes from the north of the country, of not being eligible for the presidency because his parents are from neighboring Burkina Faso. Ouattara says his parents are native Ivorians.

Bedie's ethnically divisive policies were a major reason Guei gave for his takeover. Now many Ivorians see Guei's modification to the proposed constitution as fueling the divisions.

Ivory Coast's Blood for Blood association, which represents 4 million Ivorians of mixed origin, has strongly condemned the change and called on people to vote "no" in the referendum.

Ouattara, however, has encouraged his party members to vote "yes." He maintains he is unaffected by the amendment.

But his supporters, mostly from the Muslim-dominated north, view the change as an attempt to sideline him.

"The proposed constitution contains elements destined to oppose children of this country as well as to frustrate millions of others who know no other homeland than this country. It will divide Ivorians," the National Islamic Council said in a statement Thursday.

Until December last year, the notion of a coup d'etat seemed impossible in this former French colony, which had enjoyed 40 years of stable government since independence in 1960.

Yet within seven months, a coup and two mutinies, the last at the beginning of this month, have ruined Ivory Coast's reputation.

July's uprising was particularly disturbing to many residents. Soldiers, many drunk and firing guns into the air, seized cars from passers-by and looted stores and banks.

The mutineers demanded $9,000 in perks they said they were promised to support the December coup. They eventually stopped their mutiny after settling for payments of $1,600 each to help them buy homes.

It remains unclear whether that money has been paid, but it is difficult to see how the cash-strapped government, one of Africa's most indebted, will find the funds.

The mutiny raised fears of another coup and left many wondering who really is in charge of Ivory Coast's 9,000-strong army. Thirty-five mutineers arrested a week after the uprising have still not been tried.