Conakry         -             Guineans are set to vote Sunday on whether to adopt a new constitution, against a backdrop of mass protests against the move, coronavirus and possible internet cuts. 

After being delayed last month, the referendum also caps months of tension, occasional violence, and arrests, as critics see the new constitution as a ploy to keep President Alpha Conde in power. The government argues the proposed constitution will, among other things, codify gender equality in the West African state, and that holding a referendum is democratic.

But critics fear the real motive is to reset presidential term limits, allowing Conde, 82, to run for a third spell in office later this year.

He has not denied the possibility, and since October, Guineans have taken part in sometimes-violent mass protests against such an outcome.

At least 31 protesters and one gendarme have been killed in the unrest to date, according to an AFP tally. Allegations of police brutality are routine.

Sunday’s constitutional referendum -- which occurs alongside a parliamentary poll -- takes place to questions about its fairness.

Conde postponed the referendum, originally planned for March 1, late last month after international criticism over millions of unaccounted-for names on the electoral roll.

Officials now promise those names have been scrubbed, but doubt still lingers for the country’s embattled opposition.  “There is no basis on which to say this vote will be transparent, fair,” said former premier and opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo.

“Guineans are invited to systematically refuse the holding of this constitutional coup d’etat,” he added.

Major opposition parties have vowed to boycott Sunday’s twin polls -- and have previously vowed to try to stop them from occurring.

Diallo’s Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea -- the main opposition party -- along with protest organisers, is deeply suspicious of Conde’s government.

Conde is a former opposition figure himself, who became Guinea’s first democratically-elected leader in 2010 and was re-elected in 2015.

But activists have accused him of increasing authoritarian drift, after the arrest of protest leaders. Conde appears determined to hold the vote this time round.

In state media this week, the country’s territorial administration minister, Bourema Conde, said the vote should take place peaceably and accused the opposition of “Machiavellian schemes”. He added that those seeking to block the vote wanted “the worst for Guinea”.