Mauritanians abolish Senate in referendum, allow president to run again for office
Tunis- Mauritanians overwhelmingly voted to scrap their Senate and redesign the national flag, siding with President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz against opposition groups that boycotted the vote.
More than 53% of the estimated 1.4 eligible voters cast ballots in the referendum, with 85% voting to endorse the revision, the official electoral commission said.
The outcome of the vote was seen as a victory for Abdel Aziz, who was accused by opponents of trying to consolidate power. They said he was using the referendum as a “rehearsal” for a potential constitutional amendment that would extend the president mandate. He denied the accusations.
Abdel Aziz, 60, is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term. He rose to power after a coup by high-ranking generals ousted President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in 2008. Abdel Aziz was elected president the following year and won a second term in 2014.
Getting rid of constitutional term limits would enable Abdel Aziz to follow neighbouring Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and more than a dozen other African leaders, including the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in securing a longer tenure.
Though the constitutional changes were minor and did not immediately cause a major political impact, the campaign preceding the referendum was loud and fierce, with the political future of Abdel Aziz in the backdrop.
The opposition boycott movement was supported by leading figures from a range of political groups, including Islamist extremists, Islamic conservative factions and anti-slavery activists. Before the results were announced, they called the referendum an “electoral farce” and said Mauritanians would “clearly reject the proposed amendments.”
Analysts, speaking before the vote, said the most important thing to watch was turnout. The level of political polarisation was high even though the only changes being voted on were the abolishment of the upper house of parliament and the Senate, and whether to add two red bands to the national flag.
The current flag, green with the yellow Islamic crescent and star, will now feature red bands to honour the blood spilt by those who fought for independence from France. Mauritania gained independence in 1960.
Abdel Aziz had planned to endorse the amendments through a vote in the two-chamber parliament but the Senate opposed the changes even though its members are mostly government loyalists. Abdel Aziz took the issue to the voters, telling Mauritanians in campaign rallies that the “Senate was useless and too costly.”
“Those people had, according to their own talks, shared among themselves the money they were given by businessmen with the goal of undermining the country’s institutions,” state media quoted the president as saying.
Abdel Aziz dismissed accusations by right-wing activists and opponents that the referendum was a waste of money that Mauritania — one of the poorest countries in the world — could have spent on the more urgent needs of its population.
He said the country would gain much from good governance stemming from elected local councils that will replace the role of the scrapped Senate.
In 2016, Mauritania’s per person GDP was $1,296, less than 10% of the world average. Per person GDP was $3,196 and $4,846, respectively, in neighbouring Morocco and Algeria, official data indicate.
Under Abdel Aziz, Mauritania has expanded its role in the fight against jihadist extremism and radical Islamist groups in West Africa and the Arab world. Mauritania is a member of the France-backed G5 military alliance that includes Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso aiming to curb the spread of al-Qaeda and its jihadist allies in the Sahel region.
Nouakchott severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in June over accusations that Doha supported terrorists in line with major Arab powers Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which cut links with Qatar over alleged support of radical Islamists and alignment with Iran.