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Burundi Delays Referendum on New Constitution


A national referendum that was supposed to be held next week on Burundi's controversial new constitution has been postponed. The authorities are using the time to explain the draft constitution to voters.

The spokesman for Burundi's electoral commission, Paul Ngarambe, told VOA the referendum has been delayed until December 22, because of logistical problems such as a lack of ballot boxes, booths, and voting cards.

He says in the meantime the government will take the opportunity to explain the draft constitution to people across the country.

"So now, the member[s] of government, the member[s] of parliament and the senate and the politic[al] parties have to explain the text of the constitution to the population," he explained. "And not only that, there is another group of men and women who will do the education of the population about how to vote."

The month-long delay is the latest setback in a process to end the country's 11-year civil war, which has claimed about 300,000 lives.

According to the terms of a peace deal signed in Tanzania four years ago, a new constitution was supposed to be formed and approved, and elections held, by November 1 of this year. The transitional Hutu-Tutsi power-sharing government created at the time would then have handed power over to the newly elected government.

But because of wrangling over the new constitution, logistical setbacks and other problems, elections will be held next year.

The draft constitution has been a point of contention between Hutu and Tutsi political parties. It calls for a 50-50 split in the senate and a 60-40 split between Hutus and Tutsis in the National Assembly.

A group of Tutsi parties argued that the constitution, finalized by mostly Hutu politicians, does not guarantee Tutsis would continue to adequately exercise political power in the country. They also said Tutsi representatives must come from Tutsi political parties, and not from Hutu-dominated parties.

The Tutsi political parties softened their opposition earlier this month, with the hope that changes might be made to the document before the referendum.

Tutsis are about 15 percent of Burundi's population, but dominate the army and political sphere, which was the major cause of the civil war.

The chairman of Burundi's largest Tutsi political party, Jean-Baptiste Manwangari, told VOA he thinks next week's constitutional and voter education sessions will generate debate on the constitution.

"I think you have some representation of the population and they have to discuss around the project of constitution. It will be a good contradictory debate," he said.

The UPRONA party chairman said he hopes President Domitien Ndayizeye will listen to the peoples' feedback on the constitution.

Officials from the government and the former main Hutu rebel group that has since joined the government argue that the power-sharing agreement and constitution have been brought about by consensus and reflect the wishes of the majority.