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Ivory Coast Extends Referendum Vote

July 24, 2000

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) _ Frustrated voters were still waiting for materials to arrive at some polling stations hours after balloting was scheduled to resume Monday, the second day of voting for a new Ivory Coast constitution.

Voting was supposed to end Sunday in the referendum, which tests the ruling military junta’s resolve to return the nation to civilian rule. But organizational problems marred the vote, and the junta announced on state-run radio that voting would continue Monday at stations where people were unable to cast their ballots.

Irregularities included late openings at some stations, insufficient ballots and election officials who failed to turn up. Some of the country’s 4.8 million registered voters were kept waiting for their voting cards, and there were also scattered accusations of fraud.

Turnout in Abidjan appeared to be light for the extended voting.

``We’re fed up,″ said Reine Kouame, a teacher waiting for a second day at a polling station in the residential suburb of Riviera. ``This thing is so badly organized.″

Meanwhile, vote counting had already begun in some areas.

The referendum comes at a critical juncture for Ivory Coast. Once among Africa’s most stable nations, the country faces increasing military unrest, a battered economy and fears that things could get worse.

The referendum is billed as the first step toward returning the West African country to civilian rule, culminating in presidential elections Sept. 17. But junta leader Gen. Robert Guei, a former army chief, is widely believed to be planning to run.

The draft varies little from the previous constitution, and campaigning has focused on one section _ eligibility for the presidency. A last-minute amendment stipulates that both parents of presidential candidates must be ``of Ivorian origin″ _ a change many see as designed to exclude the country’s main opposition leader, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, from running for president.

Ouattara was at the center of controversy over similar eligibility conditions under former President Henri Konan Bedie, who was ousted in the Christmas Eve coup that brought Guei to power. Bedie claimed Ouattara was not eligible for the presidency because he said Ouattara’s parents were from neighboring Burkina Faso.

Ouattara has encouraged his followers to vote ``yes″ on the constitution, insisting both his parents were Ivorian. Yet some Ouattara supporters feared their leader would be excluded and said they would vote ``no.″

Apparently fearing a backlash against what many see as ethnically divisive policies, the government announced a state of emergency last week. Guei accused opponents of ``maneuvering in the shadows″ to organize a boycott.

Ivory Coast has some 19 million residents, about 40 percent of them immigrants who came here when the country was the region’s economic powerhouse. But in recent years, as prices for the country’s main exports, cocoa and coffee, have plummeted, the economy has stumbled and its hospitality has turned to a simmering xenophobia.

Although the December coup was initially popular among Ivorians, who had grown tired of corruption and ethnic favoritism under Bedie, many have since become disillusioned. Tensions have risen since a two-day mutiny in early July, when rioting soldiers demanded perks they said were promised them for supporting the coup.

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