UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
COTE D IVOIRE: Parliament passes crucial law for peace but Gbagbo insists on referendum
ABIDJAN, 20 Dec 2004 (IRIN) - President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d'Ivoire dug his heels in over the weekend, insisting on a referendum to decide whether people with only one Ivorian parent can run for the presidency, hours after parliament had passed a law giving the green light to this change in the constitution.
The constitutional amendment, provided for in a January 2003 peace agreement, is aimed at allowing Alassane Ouattara, the darling of rebel forces occupying the north of the country, to challenge Gbagbo in presidential elections due in October next year.
But holding a free and fair referendum in the divided West African country before then may well prove difficult and opposition leaders suspect that Gbagbo may try to manipulate such a vote to reject the amendment approved by parliament.
"We are the constitution, it's our blood," Gbagbo told a pan-African youth meeting, organised by his militant Young Patriot supporters on Saturday. "Do you want a constitutional change? The only way to change [the constitution] is by the people, and we are going to consult the people."
Changing the presidential eligibility clause is a crucial step along the road to peace in Cote d'Ivoire, which has been partitioned by civil war for more than two years.
Ouattara, a former prime minister who is popular in the north, was banned from running against Gbagbo in the 2000 presidential election on the disputed grounds that his father came from neighbouring Burkina Faso.
And he will not be on the ballot sheet next year unless the controversial Article 35 of the constitution is changed. Before last Friday's vote by parliament, it stated that both parents of the president must be born in Cote d'Ivoire.
The reform of this crunch clause has been a point of heated discussion at a string of summits aimed at restoring peace to Cote d'Ivoire.
But the amendment was written into the French-brokered Linas-Marcoussis peace deal in 2003, which remains the blueprint for a political settlement, and the international community has insisted on it ever since.
The reform of article 35 remains a key point in the latest mediation effort undertaken by South African President Thabo Mbeki under the auspices of the African Union (AU).
Ahead of schedule
South African mediation documents obtained by IRIN showed that Cote d'Ivoire's parliament had dealt with the bill faster than expected, when they voted it through on Friday.
Mbeki had given the government until the beginning of February to push the reform of article 35 through parliament.
"Nobody was confident that [Article 35] would pass so quickly so this was a pleasant surprise to many people," said Ralph Uwechue, the envoy of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Cote d'Ivoire. The Nigerian diplomat is an influential figure, who sits on an international committee set up to monitor implementation of the Marcoussis peace deal.
The South African mediation documents, dated 6 December, make no specific mention of a referendum, but they do say that within two months there should be "approval of such legislation as might need to be brought in line with Linas-Marcoussis."
Gbagbo told Saturday's rally that he would announce the date of the referendum on television, but he gave no hint as to when the vote might take place.
However, his close ally, Mamadou Koulibaly, the speaker of parliament, was more specific.
"I think we should be able to organise the referendum in June and then we'll have time to organise the presidential elections from June until October," he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
Opposition politicians say a referendum is not necessary since the head of state can make "full use of his powers" to override the requirement for such a vote in exceptional cases.
"I don't believe in this talk about the referendum," Bacongo Cisse, a spokesman for Ouattara's opposition party, the Rally of the Republicans (RDR), told IRIN. "I think Gbagbo is just saying this to reassure his supporters."
"Gbagbo used to say that he would violate the constitution if he submitted Article 35 to parliament, but last week he submitted it anyway," Cisse noted. "Now that the draft amendment has been approved by deputies, who are actually chosen by the people, the raison d'être for the referendum simply no longer exists."
The New Forces rebel movement which has been fighting to topple Gbagbo since September 2002 is also unhappy about the prospect of a referendum because officials close to the president say the poll can only take place once the rebels have disarmed and the country is reunified.
"The New Forces have only really got one major concession to make and that's disarming. You can't expect them to give up their trump card easily," one Cote d'Ivoire expert explained.
The South African mediation plan envisages disarmament being completed by early April.
The rebels once again rejected Gbagbo's insistence of a referendum, and some accused him of trying once more to wreck the peace process, following his abortive attempt to recapture the north by force in early November.
The government' offensive came to an abrupt halt after only two days when French peacekeeping forces destroyed Gbagbo's small air force on the ground.
"The only option for (Gbagbo) is war," Cisse Sindou, a senior rebel official, was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Sidiki Konate, the official spokesman of the New Forces, was less strident, but quite categoric in his rejection of a referendum.
"Putting forward the idea of a referendum is a way for Mr Gbagbo to appeal to his support base in Abidjan. But we should not give in to this irresponsible attitude and this attempt at manipulation," he told the French news agency AFP. "Article 35 must be promulgated immediately just as it is."
Some diplomatic commentators say the controversy surrounding a referendum should not distract from the real event standing between Cote d'Ivoire and peace -- the October 2005 presidential election.
"Everything we're doing really is preparing for the elections," Uwechue, the ECOWAS representative, said. "The elections are what really matters."
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