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Ivorian Opposition Leader Calls for Elections, Changes in Constitution - 2001-12-01


Ivory Coast opposition leader Alassane Ouattara is demanding that the country revise its constitution and hold new elections in which he would be allowed to run. Mr. Ouattara made the demand in a speech delivered Saturday, one day after he returned from a self-imposed one year exile in France. Alassane Ouattara spoke at a national reconciliation forum meant to help end a political crisis that started with the country's first-ever military coup in December 1999.

The opposition leader fled Ivory Coast just over a year ago, after the Ivorian supreme court disqualified him from running in presidential elections that were to return the country to civilian rule.

The court barred Mr. Ouattara from running, citing doubts about his nationality. The judges based their decision on a clause in a new constitution, which observers - including President Laurent Gbagbo - have said was written specifically to keep Mr. Ouattara from running against then-military ruler General Robert Guei.

In his speech Saturday, Alassane Ouattara said the court's ruling and past attempts by the government to show that he was not fully Ivorian, were unjust. He said the only way to correct what was done is to change the constitution and hold new elections.

Spreaking through an interpreter, Mr. Ouattara said, "What credibility can a constitution have, if its laws are directed against one individual and everyone who supports him?" He said, "Today, it is proven that our country has a law that is divisive." The opposition leader also said, "how can our country get the respect it deserves, with a law that bears the mark of exclusion?"

Mr. Ouattara draws his support from Dioulas, a large, mostly Muslim ethnic group from the north of the country. Some northerners believe southerners of other ethnic groups have historically excluded them from political life in Ivory Coast.

On Friday, thousands of supporters turned out at Abidjan airport to welcome Alassane Ouattara home after a year in exile. They chanted their demand, "Ado," as Mr. Ouattara is known to his supporters, "for president."

The government of President Gbagbo has strongly opposed any suggestion to revisit last year's poll, which was marred by street clashes that left hundreds dead. With scenes of the unrest still fresh on their minds, some Ivorians are troubled by Mr. Ouattara's insistence on calling for a new constitution and new elections.

Some who listened to Alassane Ouattara's speech on Saturday say they worry the demand may set off a new wave of political turmoil of the type that the reconciliation conference is aiming to end.

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