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Voters in Niger Head to Polls

Voters in Niger go to the polls this month in a referendum on changing the constitution following February's military coup. The new government would have a less powerful chief executive.

Voters will decide whether to keep the constitution approved just last August in a controversial referendum that increased the power of then-President Mamadou Tandja and gave him another three years in power.

President Tandja went ahead with that referendum over the objections of the Economic Community of West African States. When Niger's parliament and constitutional court said the vote was illegal, he dissolved both bodies and ruled by decree.

The president's refusal to give up power at the end of his second five-year term sparked widespread protests. Military leaders toppled him in February and named a consultative counsel to draft a new constitution.

Attorney Seini Yaye is the vice president of the counsel's commission on political affairs. He says the referendum is a chance to return Niger to normal constitutional life. "In the opinion of the citizens of Niger, it is normal to have a new constitution to bring about a modern state that respects the rule of law. And there will not be this modern state without a new reliable constitution," he said.

Niger is no stranger to changing its constitution. But political science professor Mahaman Tidjani Alou says the breadth of civil society represented in this consultative counsel makes this proposed constitution more accountable to the people. "This is the first time in the history of Niger that a constitutional project was discussed by all parts of social and professional society. Usually when you talk about constitutions, you talk about the type of government they will vote on. Will it be presidential, semi-presidential, or parliamentary? Will this be a secular government or will it be Islamic?," he said.

The consultative counsel settled on what is known as a semi-presidential system where the chief executive's powers are limited.

The alliance of political parties that supported former president Tandja says that is a mistake because Niger needs a strong central authority to manage such a vast, under-developed country with huge population growth.

Because the referendum proposes a weaker presidency, former prime minister Seini Oumarou says Tandja supporters oppose it. "After discussion, the members of the 25 political parties which supported the previous government believe it is better for Niger to have a strong presidential government. We will have one voice in this referendum," he said.

Attorney Yaye says the consultative counsel is confident it is presenting the people of Niger with the best way to restore civilian rule. "There will be new laws that are going to be taken and it is important that it happens before an election because on the 31st of October, Niger is going to have a new, normal constitution adopted by the people of Niger that will serve as the basis of a new normal constitutional life," he said.

Professor Alou says this referendum is about more than the next president. "The people of Niger realize that the constitution is not only about the type of government but it is about the choice of society and the principles that involve everyone," he said.

If approved, this new constitution will set the stage for presidential elections in January, delivering on the military's promise to return Niger to civilian rule within a year of their taking power.