Comoros holds referendum to extend presidential term limits

MORONI (Reuters) - Comoros holds a referendum on Monday to extend presidential term limits and end a system of rotating power among the archipelago’s three main islands, moves the opposition calls a power grab by President Azali Assoumani.

FILE PHOTO: Comoros President Azali Assoumani addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A yes vote would allow Assoumani to run for two more five year terms starting with an early election next year, rather than being required to step down when his present term ends in 2021.

Assoumani has campaigned for a “Yes” vote and has argued that the new constitution would uphold “the principle of the continuity of the state for future leaders”.

The secretary general of the opposition Union for the Development of the Comoros, Youssouf Boina, has denounced the referendum as illegal and described it as a “coup de force of the president”.

The constitution now requires the presidency to be rotated every five years among candidates from the country’s three main islands, an arrangement intended to promote stability and power-sharing in a country that has had more than 20 coups or coup attempts since it declared independence from France in 1975.

Assoumani, a former military officer, first seized power in a coup in 1999. He served an elected term as president from 2002-2006, and was re-elected in 2016. He argues that the system of rotating power makes it difficult to set longterm priorities to govern the country.

The opposition says he is flouting the constitution. He has suspended the constitutional court, and the opposition says a referendum would be illegal until it is restored.

The Director General of elections at the Interior Ministry, Mbaé Toimimou, contacted by Reuters on Monday morning, said he had personally voted in his village of Nstudjini, and no problems had been reported in the country.

Later on Monday, a group of at least a dozen young people stormed a polling station in the Sanfils district of the capital Moroni and injured two soldiers.

Interior Minister Mohamed Daoud denounced “the despicable act” and accused the opposition Juwa party of being behind the attack. A soldier had his arm torn off by the attackers, he said.

The African Union has emphasized the need to respect the constitution and has urged “stakeholders to engage in dialogue without delay and to conduct an inclusive consultation on constitutional reforms under the auspices of the AU.”

Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Omar Mohammed and Peter Graff