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Ivory Coast Opposition Pushing for Constitutional Changes, New Elections - 2001-11-16

Ivory Coast's main opposition party has announced it will push for constitutional changes and new elections following remarks made by the country's president at a reconciliation forum. The opposition's announcement represents a setback for the government's efforts to show that the country's political crisis is over.

President Laurent Gbagbo launched a national reconciliation forum last month in hopes of bringing political opponents together and resolving disputes that have lingered following the country's return to civilian rule one year ago after a military coup in 1999.

At the heart of a continuing impasse in the country is the decision by Ivory Coast's supreme court that prevented opposition leader Alassane Ouattara from running in last year's presidential and legislative elections. The reason for his disqualification, the court said, had to do with doubts about his nationality. The decision was based on a constitution approved when the country was under military rule.

Speaking recently to the reconciliation forum, President Gbagbo expressed his belief that the constitution was written specifically to keep Mr. Ouattara out of the elections.

President Gbagbo's remarks have touched off a wave of anger among supporters of Mr. Ouattara's Rally of the Republicans Party. Party Secretary-General Henriette Diabate Friday said the comment confirms allegations that her party has been making all along.

She says, "this remark confirms that the head of our party was arbitrarily excluded from running for the presidency." Mrs. Diabate says, "this exclusion has deprived Ivorians of their right to choose their leaders. This [decision by the Supreme Court] was a political maneouver." She says, "this party therefore continues to hold that the elections were not legitimate."

Mrs. Diabate announced the party will begin a drive to revise the country's constitution and then hold new presidential elections that Mr. Ouattara - now living in France - would be allowed to participate in. The party's secretary-general said a national convention will be held soon to lay out a course of action.

The declaration Friday by Mr. Ouattara's party is a signal that the ongoing reconciliation forum organized by the Gbagbo government has largely failed to bridge the major political differences dividing this country of 15 million people.

There was no immediate comment from the president's office or from organizers of the forum.