August 27, 2017

Mauritanians abolish Senate in referendum, allow president to run again for office

Like peers. President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania casts his vote in the country’s constitutional referendum, on August 5. (AFP)

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.