Gabon's parliament approved amendments to the constitution on Tuesday that would allow President Omar Bongo, in power for the past 36 years, to seek re-election indefinitely, government officials told IRIN by telephone.
The changes also reduced the presidential polls, and all other elections, to a single round of voting. The constitution previously provided for two rounds of voting in the event that no candidate obtained an outright majority of votes cast in the first ballot.
The abolition of the two-term limit for the head of state was opposed by several small opposition parties, which dubbed the move a "constitutional coup" aimed at keeping Bongo in power indefinitely.
However, the measure was voted through by Bongo's Gabonese Democratic Party, which holds a comfortable majority in both chambers of parliament, and other parties which frequently cooperate with the government.
Bongo came to power in this oil-rich country of just 1.2 million people in a 1967 coup. He was last re-elected in 1998 with 66 percent of the vote and his current seven-year mandate expires in 2005.
A constitutional amendment introduced in 1997 limited the head of state to two consecutive terms of office. This has now been removed, allowing the 68-year-old president to seek re-election indefinitely.
Bongo is the second longest serving head of state in Africa after President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo. Both leaders enjoy close links with France, the former colonial power.
Parliament, which had been recalled from a recess to approve the constitutional reform, voted through the changes as French foreign minister Dominique Villepin flew into the capital Libreville on a tour of Central African states.
Gabon's oil and timber wealth give the sparsely populated country a per capita income of more than US $4,000, one of the highest in Africa. However, the economy currently suffers from stagnation.
A Libreville resident, contacted by IRIN, said the population would have prefered a referendum on the constitutional changes rather than a vote in parliament, but Bongo has only used this mechanism once during his long rule.
Other constitutional changes approved by parliament on Tuesday were designed to strengthen the independence of the judiciary.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions