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Low Turnout Marks Chad's Referendum on Presidential Terms

  • Nico Colombant

Chadian workers guide a pipe down a well in the Doba oil fields in southern Chad where a $3.7 billion project was officially inaugurated on Oct. 10, 2003
Low turnout has marked Chad's referendum on abolishing presidential term limits, which would allow former guerrilla and 1990 coup leader Idriss Deby to run again in elections next year. Chad, which is mostly landlocked in the Sahara desert, has just become Africa's newest petro-state.

Most voters turned out early Monday in Chad, but after that, voting was very sparse.

One early voter, President Deby, denied opposition accusations that the referendum was designed for himself. He said the key issue was to take part in the democratic process.

A widely expected "yes" victory will lift the current two-term presidential limit, and also remove the maximum age of 70 for candidates.

Mr. Deby, who has won two elections, is 53. A victory in the referendum could allow him to stay in power as long as he wins elections.

Some of the opposition parties called for a boycott, saying it was a day of tyranny and national mourning.

One voter against Mr. Deby said he would vote anyway, but that he didn't expect his vote to make a difference.

"I am going to vote 'no', because there is no democracy here, you know. It's become a monarchy," he said. "If I am the one Chadian who is going to vote 'no', I am going to do it today. I know that they are going to say it is 100-percent, or something like this, of voters for 'yes.' I know that. But I, myself, I am going to do my duty of a real Chadian and my knowledge of democracy."

Some registered voters who were planning to boycott said they had had their papers checked several times by the army to see if they had voted, and decided to go ahead and vote.

The electoral commission said more than 5.6 million voters were registered, even though Chad's over 18-population is estimated at about 4 million, leading to accusations that the voter rolls were inflated.

Members of Chad's nomadic communities will cast their ballots on June 10. Overall results aren't expected until the end of the month.

The voting was organized as Chad's government is getting more and more money from its budding southern oil fields, a projected $250 million in 2005, double that of last year.

A pro-transparency activist who has been trying to advise the government on how to spend its new revenue, Ian Gary, from the group, Catholic Relief Services, says the referendum throws doubts on these efforts.

"If you have availability of information, but are not able to change any government through free and fair elections, the accountability that transparency is supposed to bring may not be there," he said. "So, I think, it's important to see that transparency is an essential, but not sufficient ingredient to the struggle to turn oil wealth into poverty reduction inside Chad."

Monday's voting also came amid reports of growing dissatisfaction within the army against Mr. Deby, and strains caused by the influx of 200,000 refugees from Sudan's warring Darfur region.