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Violence and low turnout mar Ivory Coast 'identity' referendum

Violence erupted at around 100 polling stations on Sunday, as Ivorians voted on divisive reforms concerning national identity. Low voter tunrout was also reported, although the reforms are still likely to be approved.

Election worker Nandi Bamba was preparing to open her voting booth at 0800 UTC in the economic capital of Abidjan when young men armed with clubs and machetes stormed the polling station.

"They demanded we stop working because the new constitution wasn't for the people," she said. "Then they smashed the ballot boxes, scattered the ballots. They broke everything."

Ivory Coast's Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said security had to be reinforced in some areas. "We think there's a group going from zone to zone that is truly well organised, which has as its mission to disrupt the vote as much as possible," he said.

The incidents were not expected to have an impact on the result, he said.

A vote on national identity

The plebiscite's most controversial amendment centers around the clause on national identity and legitimacy. The clause currently dictates that both parents of a presidential candidate must be born in the Ivory Coast and have not sought nationality elsewhere.

The country remains deeply divided along political and ethnic faultlines. Such divisions have contributed to years of civil unrest, including a civil war in 2002 and a bloody post-election crisis in 2010 when then-president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down. Gbagbo is currently on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity committed the during the unrest.

Elfenbeinküste Referendum Wahl Abidjan (Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo)

Opponents protest the controversial reforms posed by President Alassane Ouattara

The President's legacy

Opposition parties had called for a boycott of the vote, arguing that the constitutional amendments were designed to further enrich President Alassane Ouattara's ruling coalition. Critics described the referendum is a "monarchistic tactic" and claim that President Ouattara is lining a successor for when his term ends in 2020. 

Pascal Affi Nguessan, head of the opposition Ivorian Popular Front, said: "What he is offering is less than a constitution - it is a will and testament designed to distribute his country to his successors so it stays in the family."

The referendum also proposes the creation of a vice presidential post and the establishment of a senate, one third of which is to be nominated by the president.

Low turnout

However, voter turnout was also visibly lower in Abidjan than during last year's presidential elections, where 54.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

As well opposition calls for a boycott, civil society groups also criticized the process of drafting a 184-article charter and submitting it to a plebiscite in just two and a half weeks. The US-based rights group Human Rights Watch warned that because of the rushed process and lack of transparency many Ivorians were none the wiser as to what they were voting for.

However, despite the low turnout, local commentators say that there remains little doubt that the changes will be approved.

dm/ss (AFP, Reuters)