Comoros heads into violence-tarred referendum on constitution

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Voters in the Comoros go to the polls on Monday for a politically explosive referendum overshadowed by a clampdown and an attempted assassination just days before the vote.

Burdened by a long history of turbulence, the Indian Ocean archipelago is being asked to vote on changes to the constitution put forward by President Azali Assoumani.

Critics say that Assoumani’s scheme is to retain power beyond 2021, when his currently non-renewable single term would otherwise end.

Under the current constitution adopted in 2001, power rotates every five years between the country’s three main islands as a means of balancing power in the coup-prone country.

If the government wins the referendum, this arrangement would be scrapped and replaced by a president who would be elected for a five-year tenure, renewable for one term.

Assoumani would also gain the power to scrap the country’s three vice-presidencies, another checks-and-balances feature of the present constitution.

In addition, a constitutional clause on secularism would be scrapped and replaced by text saying “Islam is the religion of state” and “the state draws from this religion the principles and rules of Sunnite observance.”

Ninety-nine percent of the Comoran population are Sunni Muslim.

Opposition parties have lashed the referendum as illegal and the process as murky.

“When the law is trampled on, you cannot organise a credible vote… we cannot take part in an election or any kind of referendum which has been branded by illegality,” Ahmed el-Barwane, head of the Juwa party, warned ahead of the ballot.

In June, one of the country’s trio of vice presidents, Ahmed Said Jaffar, urged Comorans to “reject the dangerous abuse” of power. He was later stripped of all but one of his ministerial portfolios.

– Early elections? –
If Assoumani wins the referendum, he is expected to stage early elections next year to try to extend his term in office. If he loses, he will step down, according to his spokesman, Mohamed Ismailla.

A group of three islands between Mozambique and Madagascar and one of the world’s poorest countries, the Comoros has endured coups and political turmoil, including intervention by mercenaries, ever since it gained independence from France in 1975.

Assoumani, a 59-year-old former colonel, was president between 1999 and 2002, coming to power after ousting acting president Tadjidine Ben Said Massonde in a military coup.

He won the country’s first multi-party elections in 2002, stepping down in 2006 to democratically hand over power to Ahmed Abdallah Sambi.

In May 2016, he returned again as president after an election marred by violence and allegations of voting irregularities.

– Clampdown –
In April this year, Assoumani suspended the Constitutional Court — his spokesman said the institution had become “useless, superfluous and incompetent” as the eight-seat panel only had three judges and thus could not constitute a quorum.

The following month, former president Sambi — reputed to be close to Shiite Muslim Iran — was placed under house arrest shortly after returning from a six-month absence abroad, and Assoumani outlawed demonstrations.

Last Sunday, one of the vice presidents, Moustoidrane Abdou, who holds the portfolios of production and energy, escaped an assassination attempt.

He was travelling to his home village of Sima in the west of Anjouan island when assailants on a motorcycle raked his car with automatic gunfire near the island’s biggest town of Mutsamudu.

The three main islands of the Comoros — Grande-Comore, the largest, and from which Azali hails, Anjouan and Moheli — have a population of around 800,000 people. A fourth island in the group, Mayotte, remains part of France.