Mauritania votes to abolish Senate and change national flag by referendum

Supporters of Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in a rally on July 20, 2017, ahead of the constitutional referendum on scrapping the Senate and changing the national flag.
Supporters of Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in a rally on July 20, 2017, ahead of the constitutional referendum on scrapping the Senate and changing the national flag.PHOTO: AFP

NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) - Mauritanians have voted to abolish their Senate and alter their national flag by referendum, the electoral commission announced on Sunday (Aug 6), in a clear victory for President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz the day after the vote.

While turnout was 53.73 per cent, 85 per cent of voters on Saturday declared "Yes" to changes put to a referendum when they were defeated in the Senate in March, despite fierce criticism from a boycott movement that called mass protests during campaigning.

The boycott movement drew broad political support from figures as diverse as religious conservatives and anti-slavery activists.

Members of opposition parties spearheading the boycotters held a press conference on Sunday during which they denounced an "electoral farce which has given way to open-air fraud", adding that people "had clearly rejected the constitutional amendments".

They said they would not recognise the results of the referendum, having previously claimed the government would rig the vote.

The most contentious issue surrounding the vote, given that just one opposition party campaigned for "No" while the boycott campaign attracted several parties and civil society movements, was the turnout.

Turnout was just 36 per cent in the capital, Nouakchott, but was much higher in the remote west African nation's rural areas, at times hitting 80 per cent, the electoral commission said.

The boycott movement held several protests attracting thousands of supporters, but were also prevented from demonstrating by the security forces, who on Thursday shut down several planned rallies close to the capital with tear gas and beat protesters back with batons.

The UN Human Rights Office said on Thursday that "protest leaders were reportedly beaten up and a number of them were arrested" during campaign rallies in the last few weeks, urging the government to ensure fair and credible elections.

Around 1.4 million Mauritanians were eligible to vote and celebrations were expected from the select opposition parties that did support the revision.

The opposition groups opposed to the measure say they are concerned that, despite President Aziz's claims to the contrary, he is laying the groundwork for a third term in power - with his own prime minister saying in July that he supported the idea.

Mr Aziz himself fuelled speculation on Saturday by saying that "in two years, or even 10 years, other amendments could arise to adapt our Constitution to reality", without elaborating.

The proposal to modify the Constitution, in force since 1991, was rejected by the Senate in March, leading Mr Aziz to call the referendum to push through the changes.

About 20 senators, who have held a sit-in for three days at their chamber, suspended their protest and said they would gather on Monday to consider the "fraud" committed by Mr Aziz and his supporters, according to a statement.

President Aziz came to power in a coup in 2008 and was elected in 2009 and again in 2014 for a second five-year term.

The Mauritanian flag will now feature red bands added to the current green flag with yellow Islamic crescent and star to honour the blood spilt by those who fought for freedom from colonial master France.