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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Mauritania votes to abolish senate in controversial referendum

It came despite fierce criticism from a diverse boycott movement which organised mass protests during campaigning

Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz came to power in a coup in 2008 and was elected in 2009. He was elected again in 2014 for a second five-year term. Geoffroy van der Hasselt / AFP
Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz came to power in a coup in 2008 and was elected in 2009. He was elected again in 2014 for a second five-year term. Geoffroy van der Hasselt / AFP

Mauritanians have voted to abolish their senate and alter their national flag by referendum, the electoral commission announced on Sunday, in a clear victory for president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Although turnout was only 53.73 per cent, 85 per cent of voters on Saturday said "Yes" to changes that were put to a referendum after being defeated in the senate in March. It came despite fierce criticism from a boycott movement which organised 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 movement 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, though was much higher in rural areas, at times hitting 80 per cent, the electoral commission said.

The boycott movement held several protests attracting thousands of supporters, but was 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 United Nations 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 Mr Aziz's claims to the contrary, he is laying the groundwork for a third term in power — with his own prime minister saying last month 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, which has been in force since 1991, was rejected by the senate in March, leading Mr Aziz to call the referendum to push through the changes.

Around 20 senators, who had 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.

Mr Aziz came to power in a coup in 2008 and was elected to the post of president the following year. In 2014, he was re-elected 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.