Votes are being counted in Comoros‘ highly controversial referendum that could replace the current system of rotating power between islands and extend the rule of President Azali Assoumani.
Comorans were asked to vote on Monday on changes to the constitution put forward by Assoumani, a move critics say is a power grab intended to extend his presidential term, which is due to end in 2021.
But turnout was low at several polling stations in the capital, Moroni, according to AFP news agency, after opposition leaders called for a boycott of the poll, which has been marred by a crackdown on dissent.
Ahmed el-Barwane, secretary-general of the opposition Juwa party, told AFP that people were sending a “strong message” to the government by not turning out at the ballot.
Two ballot boxes were destroyed at a polling station in the Hankounou district of Moroni, located on the island of Grande Comore. A police officer was injured with a blade in the incident and taken to hospital.
Speaking in his home village of Mitsoudje on Monday, Assoumani called the incident an “isolated” case, adding that there had been “one case” of trouble on the island of Anjouan.
Under the current constitution, power rotates between the country’s three main islands every five years as a means of power balancing in the country, which ranks among the world’s poorest.
If the reform passes, this system would be replaced by a president who can serve a maximum of two five-year terms.
Assoumani would also gain the power to scrap other constitutional checks and balances, including the country’s three vice presidencies and a clause on secularism, which would be replaced by a statement confirming Islam as the “religion of the state”.
Ninety-nine percent of Comorans are Sunni Muslims.
If Assoumani’s reforms pass, he is expected to hold early elections next year, but has promised to step down if he loses Monday’s vote, according to his spokesman Mohamed Ismailla.
Having taken power in a military coup, Assoumani served as president between 1999 and 2002. He stepped down in 2006, after winning the country’s first multiparty elections in 2002.
He returned to the country’s top post in 2016, following an election blighted by violence and allegations of voting irregularities.
Results are expected by late Monday or early Tuesday.
The referendum takes place amid a crackdown on dissent on the Indian Ocean archipelago, which has suffered numerous coups since gaining independence from France in 1975.
In April, Assoumani suspended the Constitutional Court over “incompetence”. His spokesperson said at the time that the institution had become “useless, superfluous and incompetent”.
Assoumani outlawed demonstrations in May and the former President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi was placed under house arrest after returning from abroad.
While in the following month, Ahmed Said Jaffar, one of the country’s vice presidents was stripped of all but one of his ministerial roles after urging Comorans to “reject the dangerous abuse of power” in the referendum.
On July 22, gunmen on motorcycles attempted to assassinate one of the country’s vice presidents, Moustoidrane Abdou, who escaped the attack.