May 17, 2009 / 8:39 AM / 10 years ago

Comoros votes on controversial presidential referendum

MORONI (Reuters) - Comorans voted on Sunday on whether to streamline the archipelago’s government system in a referendum that opponents say seeks to extend President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi’s rule and will weaken federal leaders.

Comoros President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi waves upon arrival on the second-day of the 10th African Union Summit in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa February 1, 2008. REUTERS/ Antony Njuguna (ETHIOPIA)

The current convoluted political system sought to keep the three coup-prone Indian Ocean islands in a union following the archipelago’s volatile post-independence history.

The Grand Comores, Anjouan and Moheli — sandwiched between Mozambique and Madagascar — each elect their own leaders under the 2001 constitution and another presidency position rotates around the archipelago’s three islands.

The administration of Sambi — who is the union president — says that system costs the poor nation too much money.

“We are saying that it is too expensive for a country of 800,000 people to have four presidents and four administrations,” said Sambi’s spokesman, Abdourahim Said Bacar.

“We propose one (rotating) president while each island elects a governor, and one national parliament and councillors for each island,” he said, adding that the costs of the existing bureaucratic system were slowing development.

The opposition has told its supporters to boycott the vote.

“The referendum has one primary objective and that is to extend Sambi’s mandate,” Houmed Msaidie, secretary-general of the leading opposition party, told Reuters.

If a yes vote wins after Sunday’s plebiscite, Sambi, who should step down next May, will remain in power until 2011 before handing the baton to a leader from Moheli.

Opponents have called the referendum illegal, saying voter lists are incomplete while not every eligible voter has a card.

Critics argue that Sambi’s proposals threaten the islands’ autonomy, and the plan to extend his presidency by a year is a litmus-test for an even longer extension.

“He wants to be superman of the islands. He’s looking to become a dictator,” said Ahamada Madi Mari, special adviser to Moheli’s president, adding that the autonomy of each island was sacred to the constitution.

A petition to annul the vote was thrown out by the constitutional court earlier this month.

There have been more than 20 coups or attempted coups in the nation of 860,000 people since independence from France in 1975.

Last year’s removal of one island’s rebel leader in an Africa Union-led intervention damaged tourist arrivals and foreign investment. The global economic downturn has also depressed vanilla prices, the country’s key export commodity.

Mari said that a yes vote risked spawning a vendetta towards the people of Anjouan, the island Sambi heralds from.

“There will be a sort of civil war if the yes vote takes it. Here in Moheli will never recognise this referendum,” Mari said.

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