Ivory Coast approves new constitution

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - In a landslide vote, Ivory Coast residents approved a new constitution billed as a first step to return the West African nation to civilian rule, according to final results Tuesday.

But opponents of the referendum voted on Sunday and Monday worried that the new charter will legally enshrine growing anti-foreigner sentiment and ethnic tensions.

Returns from all 58 voting districts showed 86.5 percent backing the constitution, with 13.5 percent against, Interior Ministry official Fidel Yapi told The Associated Press. He said 56 percent of the country's 4.8 million registered voters turned out.

The referendum came at a critical juncture for Ivory Coast. Once among Africa's most stable nations, the country faces increasing military unrest, a battered economy and concerns that things could worsen.

Supporters say the new constitution will help return the country to civilian rule, culminating in presidential elections Sept. 17. Junta leader Gen. Robert Guei, a former army chief, is widely believed to be planning to run.

Guei came to power in a December coup that was initially popular among Ivorians, tired of the corruption and ethnic favoritism in the ousted government. Many have since become disillusioned.

Opposition to the draft came mainly from residents with immigrant backgrounds and northerners who fear the constitution will promote anti-foreigner sentiment and ethnic tensions.

Ivory Coast has some 19 million residents, about 40 percent of them immigrants who came here when the country was the region's economic powerhouse. Many of the immigrants cannot vote.

In recent years as prices for the country's main exports, cocoa and coffee have plummeted, the economy has stumbled and Ivory Coast's hospitality has turned to a simmering anti-foreigner sentiment.

The referendum, which began Sunday, was forced into a second day Monday because of organizational problems. Voters had been widely expected to approve the constitution after all political parties backed it.


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