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Update: The final vote tally, according to government of Equatorial Guinea, was passage of the referendum with 97.7 percent approval and 91 percent voter participation, a result EG Justice and Human Rights Watch said was not credible given the many reports of voting fraud, harassment of opposition supporters and intimidation.

(Washington, DC) – A referendum on November 13, 2011, to modify the constitution of Equatorial Guinea to further increase the powers of the presidency was marred by reports of voting fraud, harassment of opposition supporters, and intimidation of voters, EG Justice and Human Rights Watch said today.

The irregularities, including the presence of armed security personnel inside polling places, ballot stuffing, and threats against opposition members attempting to monitor the vote, call into question the validity of the results announced by the government, the groups said. The government claimed that the initial tally gave it an overwhelming victory with more than 99 percent voting in favor of the measures. It is expected to issue the final vote tally on November 16.

“The Equatoguinean government has once again failed to safeguard people’s right to public participation,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice,a nongovernmental group that promotes good governance in Equatorial Guinea. “The repressive way this constitutional referendum was carried out makes this supposed reform agenda look like a farce.”

The constitutional changes will enable President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, to hand-pick his successor and to retain significant political influence even after he leaves office. Although they introduce term limits that bar a president from serving more than two terms consecutively, they also lift the age limit that would otherwise have blocked the 69-year-old Obiang from running again after age 75.

EG Justice gathered information on the conduct of the referendum vote from an independent vote observer, opposition party members observing the voting, and voters who described conditions at polling places in Bata, Malabo, and Luba. These sources told EG Justice that officials at the polling sites encouraged some voters to cast ballots on behalf of absent relatives. At some polling places, they said, officials urged voters to cast their votes publicly, which is contrary to the country's constitutional guarantee of a secret ballot.

The voting rules required officials to provide each voter with two ballots, a “yes” ballot and a “no,” to carry into a private voting booth. The voter was to insert the ballot indicating the person’s preference into the ballot box, and hide or discard the other ballot. In some cases, however, officials at the polling sites encouraged voters to carry only “yes” ballots into voting booths, or to make their selection without using a voting booth. In some polling places, neither “no” ballots nor private voting booths were available, those interviewed by EG Justice said.

Sources inside the country also reported the presence of armed security forces in and around polling places, in violation of international best practices. Several members of the Convergence for Social Democracy (Convergencia Para la Democracia Social, CPDS) opposition party were threatened at polling sites in Bata and Malabo, and at least two other party members were detained at a polling site in Bata. Sources told EG Justice that many polling places closed early, limiting the ability of voters to participate in the referendum.

At a news conference at 11 p.m. on the day of the referendum, officials announced that, with 60 percent of the votes counted, more than 99 percent of the votes cast were in favor of the reforms. Sources inside the country informed EG Justice that some precincts reported 100 percent in favor. Voting irregularities and unusually high vote tallies have marked previous voting processes in the country. Obiang has claimed to have won the last five presidential elections with at least 95 percent of the vote.

EG Justice and Human Rights Watch identified a number of troubling issues during the constitutional reform process, including:

  • The proposed reforms were developed with little or no opportunity for debate by the Equatoguinean people.
  • The government did not issue the official electoral lists until the day of the referendum, leaving no time for potential errors or irregularities to be corrected.
  • The government waited until three days prior to the vote to announce that international observers would be allowed to monitor the referendum; consequently, it appears that only a small number of monitors affiliated with some of the few foreign embassies with a presence in the country were able to go to polling places to observe the referendum process.
  • The National Electoral Commission, which oversees the vote and tally, is not an independent body. It is headed by the interior minister, a top ruling party official.
  • There were serious limitations on the opposition’s ability to mobilize and campaign because the ruling party has a virtual monopoly on power, funding, and access to the media.
  • The opposition was deterred from observing the voting. CPDS withdrew its polling site monitors during the early afternoon the day of the vote to protest the actions to block some CPDS members from monitoring the polling places and from speaking out against voting fraud.

The Equatoguinean government has sought to portray the vote as a hallmark of what it characterizes as democratic reform. For example, after casting his ballot, Obiang declared that “Equatorial Guinea is a country completely transformed, and criticisms of these reforms are, in any case, of some international observers who want to drag our citizens to their vile interests. The reforms are a good step and what is good for the country is good for everyone.”

“The government of Equatorial Guinea has failed to provide an inclusive, transparent, and accountable voting process,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “The result of the referendum and the government’s commitment to true democratic reforms both lack credibility.”

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