Ivorians have largely voted in favor of a new constitution despite calls for a boycott by the opposition. The new text modernizes Ivorian institutions and aims for social harmony, though its outcome will depend upon the cooperation of the opposition in a country still divided by ethnic and religious rivalries.
On Sunday, October 30, 6.3 million Ivorians voted on a new constitutional reform proposed by the freshly re-elected President, Alassane Ouattara. One of his key campaign promises was the reform of the law of the land. At his inauguration, the President reaffirmed his commitment to this pledge: “The changes that we want to put in place will take into account our history, our culture, and the values we want to promote for a new Côte d'Ivoire.” Following the peaceful, well-organized presidential election, no less than 93.42% of Ivorians voted in favor of the reform. On November 1, the president of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Youssouf Bakayoko, made the unsurprising results official. It now falls to the Constitutional Court to validate the text and pave the way for Côte d'Ivoire ‘s Third Republic.
While there was little doubt that the text would be adopted, turnout was a real concern. The opposition had called for a boycott of the referendum, but this strategy was employed after the reelection of Ouattara for a second term – with a full 83.66% of the vote. It was very unlikely that the public would vote down the text just after voicing its support for the head of state. The idea was therefore to undermine the significance of the document by making it a victory not for the nation, but for the ruling party. In reality, the participation rate reached 42%, with the lowest rates in the south of the country. This result could be considered a failure for the boycott. Participation is traditionally low in Côte d'Ivoire, and to compare, the rate for the presidential election was 54.63%. This difference is a far cry from the national disavowal hoped for by the opposition. Joël N’Guessan, spokesman for the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party of the president, also judged it to be a “respectable” result.
Still, this victory at the polls won't silence the reform's critics, some of whom are very angry. Pascal Afffi N'Guessan, president of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI, the main opposition party) had some very harsh words before the vote: “By deciding to withdraw, we have taken away the democratic substance of this constitution. We are sounding the knell of its failure in the process of reconciling Ivorians and in the establishment of democratic institutions.” Considering the turn of events, it seems he has lost his wager and failed to incite any suspicion of illegitimacy. The 154-page document, which was approved by Parliament on October 11, received considerable support in the referendum – rendering any serious challenge to its adoption difficult. This hasn't stopped the opposition from attacking the text at a fundamental level. “This constitution effectively colonizes much of the country for outsiders,” declared Innocent Anaki Kobena, Minister under Laurent Gbagbo, on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, the text turns the page on a decade of internal division and political crises by implementing the measures recommended by the Linas-Marcoussis Agreement. As a reminder, the text was written with input from the full spectrum of Ivorian political forces, under the supervision of the United Nations and the African Union, after the first civil war in January 2003. These groups had been pushed aside by Mr. Gbagbo, Alassane Ouattara's predecessor. Now, the new constitution makes compulsory education and gender equality national priorities. It also eliminates the divisive concept of “Ivorianness” imposed by Article 35 of the current constitution. The article states that any person who is not “of Ivorian origin, born of father and mother themselves of Ivorian origin” shall be barred from becoming president. In the past, this provision greatly divided Ivorians and steered the national dialogue towards sensitive issues of identity when the country was just emerging from a civil war.
The new Ivorian Constitution also introduces structural changes, including the creation of the office of Vice President. The Vice President will be elected on a twin ballot with the President of the Republic and has a dual role of continuity in the executive. The new position will serve in part to strengthen the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive by providing a break in the order of provisional succession in case of vacancy by the President of the Republic, taking a place before the President of the National Assembly.
The new constitution also provides for the creation of a Senate. The “lower house” thereby established would welcome the representatives of civil society, regional groups, political parties, traditional chiefdoms, religious leaders, women, youth, etc. The Senate would offer a voice to such minorities whose visibility is limited in the Assembly, where the majority rules – an interesting step towards secularism in a country where deep religious divisions persist. The stated objective is to integrate an alternative point of view and enrich the legislative debate while ensuring that the last word be the prerogative of the National Assembly, since it is that which emanates directly from the Ivorian people as a whole. “All these reforms share an ultimate goal: to provide Côte d'Ivoire with a modern constitution and to install resilient, orderly institutions which respect diversity and protect freedoms,” Alassane Ouattara explained ahead of the vote. Achieving social harmony, however, can only be possible with the backing – and good faith – of the opposition.