Voters in the Central African Republic are going to the polls on Sunday to vote in a constitutional referendum that could allow president Faustin Archange Touadera to seek a third term in office.
About 1.9 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots on the draft constitution, according to the National Elections Authority (NEA), as more than 5,400 polling stations opened at 6 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) and are set to remain open for 10 hours.
Provisional results are expected to be published within eight days while the Constitutional Court will proclaim the final results on Aug. 27.
President Touadera, who voted in the capital Bangui and who proposed the changes last year, argued that the new constitution would help the country develop.
However critics, including opposition leader Anicet Georges Dologuele, have claimed that the National Elections Authority and the Constitutional Court are not independent.
If approved, the new constitution will raise the presidential term from five to seven years and scrap its two-term limit.
The opposition believes the constitutional changes seek to create a "life presidency" for Touadera.
Evariste Ngamana, vice president of the national assembly and spokesman for the presidential majority, said the draft constitution was agreed on by the people after the "republican dialogue" meeting in March last year aiming to "create stability at the institutional level and the necessary conditions for the country’s development."
Touadera, 66, was elected in 2016 in a vote that followed a civil war and reelected in 2020 in an election disrupted by armed rebel groups.
In August 2022, Touadera formed a commission to draft a new constitution.
But following a petition filed before a court by civil society group Bloc for the Defense of the Constitution, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that a commission was "unconstitutional."
However, the court's head, Daniele Darlan, was retired from office by the government in January 2023.
During two weeks of campaigns this month, opposition parties and non-governmental organizations called on people to vote against the draft constitution or boycott the polls.
Street protests against the referendum were organized during the campaigns in the capital Bangui, led by the opposition that claimed the results had already been fixed.
Ngamana, the national director of the referendum campaign, meanwhile congratulated Central Africans "for their maturity and the smooth running of this campaign" saying there were no major incidents.
However, reports have emerged of officials threatening and harassing those opposed to the referendum, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The country has been embroiled in conflict since 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted then-President Francois Bozize, prompting reprisals from mostly Christian militias.
In December 2020, the first presidential elections were held since the signing of a peace agreement between the government and 14 armed groups in February 2019.
The Central African Republic could now join other African countries Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo Republic, and the Ivory Coast which in recent years changed constitutions to allow presidents stay in office.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.