- Comoros Union President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi has announced a 17 May constitutional referendum, hoping to strengthen his central office at the cost of the autonomous island presidencies and to make Comoros an Islamic republic.
President Sambi in a televised speech announced he had "set the date of 17 May 2009 to hold a referendum to revise our constitution, with the electoral campaign to be held from 26 April to 15 May." An earlier attempt to decree a constitutional referendum in March was rejected by the Moroni constitutional court.
He made few concrete references to which constitutional changes that would be presented to Comoran voters, mostly vaguely referring to a "harmonisation" of power sharing on the decentralised archipelago.
At the earlier, rejected, attempt to vote over a constitutional change, President Sambi had proposed to extend his mandate from four to five years, lessen the powers of the three autonomous island presidents by naming them governors, strengthen central powers, giving him powers to dissolve parliament and define Comoros as an Islamic state.
President Sambi on 3 March signed the decree to hold that referendum on 22 March, but protesting island authorities achieved a constitutional court order to stop the referendum. The court ruled the presidential decree to be "illegal on procedural grounds."
Powers on Comoros are strongly decentralised due to decades of political instability and secession attempts by the archipelago's two minor islands, Anjouan and Moheli. A South African-brokered peace deal provided for the current constitution, which outlines a loose union between the two minor islands and Grande Comore.
Currently, the central (union) presidency passes from one island to another, with Mr Sambi representing the Grande Comore four-year term. He cannot be re-elected and is supposed to hand over the presidency to a person elected on Moheli island in 2010. Each of the three islands also has is own popularly elected president and parliament, which control everything except foreign and defence policies.
President Sambi's continued attempts to centralise powers and to change the constitution have raised strong opposition among other elected bodies on the archipelago. Island presidents this week jointly called on President Sambi to "respect constitution" and to "renounce" what they called his "obsession to prolonge his term."
The presidents of Moheli and Grande Comore islands said they would be willing to participate in a larger process to seek to revise and "harmonise" the Comoran constitution, but insisted this process must include all island leaders. While agreeing that the many and frequent elections held on a national and island level were costly for the small nation, they insisted President Sambi must leave powers to a Moheli-elected leader on 26 May 2010.
Despite a constant power struggle between union and island governments, Comoros has seen an unprecedented period of peace and stability since the 2001 constitution provided for a decentralised union. Analysts fear President Sambi's insistence of a constitutional reform may again create a climate of instability and political violence on the archipelago.
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