Guinean President Alpha Condé announced a “slight postponement” of Sunday’s referendum on the advisability of adopting a new constitution, following growing international criticism of the fairness of the ballot.
The government maintains that the draft constitution would codify, among other things, gender equality and prohibit female circumcision and the marriage of minors in the West African state.
But the proposal has sparked huge protests since October for fear that the real motive is to reset the presidential term limits – allowing Condé, 81, to run for a third term later this year.
Speaking on national television, the president said on Friday that it was “because of our national and regional responsibilities that we accepted a slight delay in the election date”.
“It is not a capitulation or a step backwards,” he said, adding that “the Guinean people will freely express their choice in the referendum”.
While Condé has not publicly announced a date for the new vote, a letter from the leader of the West African bloc ECOWAS, seen by AFP, said that the new poll should take place within two weeks.
The poll was scheduled for Sunday in parallel with the legislative elections – also delayed in the poor but mineral-rich country of some 13 million people, which has a legacy of an autocratic regime.
Long-standing protests over the issue of the constitution have at times turned violent, with at least 30 protesters and one constable killed to date.
Condé’s announcement follows criticism of the electoral process of the African Union, the European Union and the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), which brings together French-speaking states.
The OIF said this week it had problems with about 2.5 million of the 7.7 million names on the electoral lists, pointing to duplicate registrations and deceased people.
The African Union also canceled an electoral observation mission to Guinea on Friday, citing “great controversy”.
The EU also said in a statement that “a lack of inclusiveness and transparency casts doubt on the credibility of the upcoming elections”.
Sekou Conde, a member of the presidential party of the Rassemblement du Peuple Guininé (RPG), said the vote was postponed only for technical reasons.
“It has nothing to do with the voters’ lists,” he said, adding that people had ransacked the polling stations.
A Western diplomat, who declined to be named, said he thought the delay would make no difference anyway.
“It doesn’t change anything,” he said, adding that there would be no credible change to the problems with the electoral lists in two weeks.
The streets of the capital Conakry were quiet Friday evening after the announcement, despite months of protests.
Ibrahima Diallo, director of operations for the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution – an alliance of opposition groups behind the protests – said the protests would continue until Condé suspended the referendum.
Although the current constitution and the proposed new text limit all presidential terms to two, critics fear that adopting a new constitution will reset presidential terms.
This would potentially allow Condé to run again at the end of his second term at the end of the year.
Condé was a longtime opposition figure who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2010 on a promise to fight corruption. He was re-elected in 2015.