October 31, 2010 / 7:06 PM / 8 years ago

UPDATE 1-Niger aims for civilian rule with constitution vote

* Heavy security for vote after alleged coup attempt

* Early signs of low turnout despite junta call

* Preliminary results are expected Wednesday or Thursday

(Adds indications on turnout)

By Abdoulaye Massalaatchi

NIAMEY, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Voters in Niger turned out under tight security on Sunday for a referendum on a new constitution intended to pave the way for civilian rule.

National borders were closed for the vote, which took place weeks after Niger’s junta arrested four officers accused of trying to stage a coup in the uranium-producing African state.

“Today is an exceptional day,” junta leader Djibo Salou said after voting in a heavily guarded booth in the capital Niamey.

“I have just performed my duty in the hope ... of a new beginning for a democratic system that can bring stability and progress,” said Salou, whose promises to restore civilian rule have won him plaudits from Western donors.

The junta is hoping for voter turnout of at least 70 percent but a Reuters witness reported only a trickle of voters by midday in polling stations in Niamey. Some voters said they turned up only to be told that voting slips had not arrived.

Aside from the logistical problems, Islamic groups this week urged a boycott of the referendum because the new constitution formalises a separation of powers between the state and Islam in the 98-percent Muslim country.

Sunday’s vote is the first in a series of elections due to culminate in the swearing-in of a new civilian leader by April next year, replacing the leaders of February’s coup against former president Mamadou Tandja.

The new constitution seeks to undo presidential powers that Tandja had awarded to himself before being deposed, and to improve governance in the mining sector of a country which is nuclear-power France’s top uranium-supplier.

If adopted, the constitution guarantees immunity for the leaders of February’s coup and commits them to handing over power on April 6 next year, by which time a newly elected civilian president is due to have been inaugurated.

Preliminary results are expected Wednesday or Thursday. (Writing by Mark John; Editing by Alison Williams)

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