Sunday, August 9, 2009

President for Life? Easy, Hold a Referendum to Make Constitutional Change Legitimate

Le Monde has an interesting editorial today about the growing number of African leaders who are obtaining changes in their countries' constitutions to permit them to remain president, initially for additional terms but usually for what amounts to a lifetime appointments. (Instead of translating full paragraphs, as Alma did earlier this weekend, I will just summarize relevant points).

Last week, the President of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, won a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. He supposedly won with a 90% margin. It took some work for Tandja to get his way: he had to dismiss parliament, dissolve the constitutional court, and replace its members with judges who would approve of his referendum plans.

The Presidents of Algeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, and Chad, have also taken these types of steps. There are rumblings, the editorial says, that the president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore, wants to do the same so he can run for a fifth term in office. These Presidents hold elections sure but what kinds of elections exactly? Usually, the ones that, despite widely reported irregularities and intimidation, the international community rules them good enough. To use the expression of one of my grad school professors, those elections get a D-. They don't fail, they just don't really pass either. It's just too much of a hassle to worry about them though.

So, given that elections are fast approaching in both Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, the editorial asks, how do you organize elections so they aren't hijacked by either a single official or of course a party in a country's conflict? How do you make sure that elections aren't used to rubber stamp constitutional changes that undermine peace and security? What should our response be to such D-"elections" and "referenda"?


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