Mau­ri­ta­nia votes on con­sti­tu­tion changes af­ter anx­ious cam­paign

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Mau­ri­ta­ni­ans be­gan vot­ing yes­ter­day on sev­eral con­tentious changes to their con­sti­tu­tion sought by Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Ould Ab­del Aziz but op­posed by a wide swathe of op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers and civil so­ci­ety groups. Aziz is push­ing to abol­ish the coun­try’s Se­nate and sev­eral other state bod­ies and to make a small al­ter­ation to the na­tional flag, mea­sures that have gal­vanised a boy­cott move­ment hop­ing to sap the vote’s cred­i­bil­ity by forc­ing a low turnout.

Polling sta­tions opened at 7:00 am (0700 GMT) and were due to close at 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) in the con­ser­va­tive west African na­tion, where vi­o­lent clashes have bro­ken out af­ter the au­thor­i­ties banned sev­eral ral­lies planned by op­po­nents of the changes. The pres­i­dent is due to vote be­tween 8:00 am and 9:00 am, but few oth­ers were vis­i­ble cast­ing their bal­lots in sev­eral Nouakchott polling sta­tions vis­ited by an AFP jour­nal­ist at open­ing.

While Aziz, his sup­port­ers and sev­eral op­po­si­tion par­ties are seek­ing a “Yes” vote, one mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion party is seek­ing a “No”, while the re­main­ing par­ties have joined civil so­ci­ety groups to call for a to­tal boy­cott for amend­ments they con­sider un­con­sti­tu­tional. Jemil Ould Man­sour, head of the Is­lamic Te­was­soul party spear­head­ing the move­ment against the vote, said the coun­try’s lead­ers had fixed “the elec­toral roll and vot­ing ma­te­ri­als to pre­pare fraud on a mas­sive scale,” and warned of vi­o­lence.

“Those in power are push­ing peo­ple to vi­o­lence by not al­low­ing any kind of protest not in line with their own views,” Man­sour told re­porters on Fri­day. The boy­cott move­ment draws broad po­lit­i­cal sup­port from fig­ures as di­verse as re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives and anti-slav­ery ac­tivists. They have held sev­eral protests at­tract­ing thou­sands of sup­port­ers, but have also been pre­vented from demon­strat­ing by the se­cu­rity forces, who on Thurs­day shut down sev­eral planned ral­lies close to the cap­i­tal with tear gas and ba­ton rounds.

The UN Hu­man Rights Of­fice said 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 “take all nec­es­sary mea­sures to en­sure free, trans­par­ent and cred­i­ble elec­tions”. Around 1.4 mil­lion Mau­ri­ta­ni­ans are el­i­gi­ble to vote, and re­sults are ex­pected early next week.

Aziz vs Se­nate

The pro­posal to mod­ify the con­sti­tu­tion, in force since 1991, was ap­proved by law­mak­ers in the lower house but re­jected by 33 out of 56 se­na­tors in March, lead­ing Aziz to call the ref­er­en­dum to push through the changes. The most con­tentious mea­sure re­mains the abo­li­tion of the Se­nate and its re­place­ment with elected re­gional coun­cils, and Se­na­tors have held a sit-in this week and de­manded apolo­gies from Aziz for ac­cus­ing them of cor­rup­tion.

Un­re­pen­tant, Aziz said at a fi­nal rally on Thurs­day the Se­nate “costs a lot, has no use and does noth­ing”, and vowed to launch le­gal ac­tion against sev­eral se­na­tors. The op­po­si­tion also fears that de­spite Aziz’s claims to the con­trary he is lay­ing the ground­work for a third term in power, as his own prime min­is­ter said back in July he sup­ported the idea. The pres­i­dent came to power by coup in 2008 and was elected in 2009 and again in 2014 for a sec­ond five-year term.

There will be two bal­lot boxes yes­ter­day, one for the in­sti­tu­tional changes and the other for an al­ter­ation to the na­tional flag. The cur­rent green flag with yel­low Is­lamic cres­cent and star would be al­tered to honor those who fought for free­dom from colo­nial mas­ter France by a red band at the top and bot­tom, rep­re­sent­ing blood spilt for their na­tion, if the mea­sure is passed. Mau­ri­ta­nia won in­de­pen­dence in 1960.

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