Guinea's president delays vote on contested referendum

by Associated Press
February 28, 2020 4:05 PM

CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — Guinea’s president has delayed Sunday’s legislative and constitutional referendum vote for two weeks, citing concerns from international observers.

President Alpha Conde, 81, made the announcement late Friday on state television in the wake of the withdrawal of international election observers by the African Union and regional West African economic bloc because of security concerns.

“It is by national and sub-regional responsibility that we accepted a slight postponement of the date of the elections. It is neither a capitulation, nor a retreat but fidelity to what was the Guinea of yesterday and today," Conde said.

He clarified that only eligible candidates who registered would be valid for legislative elections.

Guineans were meant to vote Sunday on a controversial constitutional referendum that could extend the president's rule for at least another decade and lead to deeper political violence and more deadly demonstrations.

Residents were also meant to vote for deputies in parliament.

The vote, however, was being boycotted by opposition parties.

"We will oppose by all legal means this referendum,” said Sekou Koundouno, a member of the coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups National Front for the Defense of the Constitution.

More than 36 people have died in demonstrations against the referendum since October, along with at least one gendarme. Security forces on Thursday were put on high alert to protect against unrest.

The organization of French-speaking organisations, along with the African Union and economic bloc, ECOWAS, all withdrew poll observation missions, citing security issues.

President Alpha Conde, first elected in 2010, is barred from running for a third term under the constitution, but his supporters say the referendum to the constitution would allow him to run again. The new constitution would increase presidential terms from five years to six years, and would impose a two term limit. It is unclear if previous terms served would count, but Conde has implied they would not. In February, Conde said if the new constitution is passed his party will decide if he will run.

“The Guinean Constitution stipulates that the presidential mandate is of five years renewable only once," said Fode Oussou Fofana, one of the opposition spokesmen. “Now that he does not want to leave power in 2020, he has submitted this March 1 referendum … but it will not work.”

The opposition coalition has said that it will use all means to prevent elections this Sunday across the country.

But at a recent electoral rally, the president called for people to prevent disruptions of the vote.

"Guineans who do not want to go to this referendum are free not to vote. But, they have no right to prevent those who want to vote from voting," said Conde, speaking at a meeting in Kissidougou, a city in southern Guinea last week.

“Don't hit anyone. Don't insult anyone. But, if someone approaches the ballot boxes with the intention of sabotaging the vote, hit him well,” he said.

Many worry about violence and Guinean authorities have already deployed nearly 2,000 police and gendarmes.

Human Rights Watch called on Guinea’s government to respect freedom of assembly and ensure security forces act with restraint on Sunday.

“Guinea’s government needs to ensure that police and gendarme exercise restraint and discipline when policing opposition protests,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, who also reiterated the need for investigations into past alleged abuses.

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Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.