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Guinea To Hold Referendum on Constitution - 2001-11-10


Guinea holds a referendum Sunday on changing the constitution to allow President Lansana Conte to serve more than two terms. The opposition has boycotted the referendum, which has also attracted criticism from western governments.

The proposed amendments would allow the head of state to serve as many terms as he wishes. They would also extend his term of office from five to seven years and abolish the presidential age limit.

As the law now stands, President Lansana Conte's second term ends in 2003. However, if the referendum is successful, he will not have to face the voters until two years later.

Most Guineans expect 67-year-old President Conte and his supporters to have an easy win Sunday. The opposition is boycotting the poll on the grounds that results will be rigged. Opposition leaders say Mr. Conte is determined to stay in office until his last breath and has found a legal façade for doing just that.

However, officials say they are holding the referendum not because Mr. Conte is clinging to the presidency, but because the people want to keep him there.

Mr. Conte's supporters have campaigned on the slogan "don't change a winning team." The president, who came to power in a military coup in 1984, won two elections after allowing multi-party politics in 1992. Government officials say if he was good enough to win popular approval twice, he should at least be given a fair chance to stay on.

However, critics of Mr. Conte say he has obstructed their campaign against the referendum at every turn. They say that in the past week, police have fired tear gas into crowds of opposition demonstrators and broken into opposition party headquarters. Authorities argue that the referendum is a matter for the people. They say political parties should have nothing to do with it.

The referendum and Mr. Conte's plans to stay in office past 2003 have also worried western governments. On Thursday, ambassadors from the European Union and the world's leading industrialized nations met with the president to express their concern that his move might jeopardize Guinea's fledgling democracy.

Mr. Conte is part of a growing number of African leaders trying to abolish constitutional two-term limits. Zambia's Frederick Chiluba abandoned such moves earlier this year under popular pressure, but Malawi's Bakili Muluzi is now believed likely to follow in Lansana Conte's footsteps.

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