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Mauritania votes to broaden president's power as opposition boycotts

Mauritania has never had peaceful transfer of power; officials have spoken in favour of lifting term limits, set at two terms
Woman casts her vote in Mauritania's constitutional referendum on Saturday at polling station in capital Nouakchott (AFP)

Mauritania has voted in favour of a referendum to abolish the senate and change the national flag in what the West African county's opposition says is just a bid by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to bolster power and extend his mandate.

The referendum won 85 percent of the vote, the national electoral commission said on Sunday, though only slightly more than half of the population voted. About 1.4 million Mauritanians were eligible to vote.

The opposition, which boycotted the vote, said the referendum would give Abdel Aziz too much power over decision-making and pave the way for him to scrap presidential term limits. It said the vote was marred by fraud.

The capital Nouakchott was on high alert before the vote on Saturday amid opposition protests in the week before, though voting went ahead on Saturday without incident. A strong police presence was seen on Sunday, according to a Reuters witness.

Members of opposition parties spearheading the boycotters held a news 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.

Abdel Aziz, who last week described the senate as "useless and too costly," has said the move to abolish the governing body would improve governance by introducing more local forms of lawmaking.

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

Mauritania has never had a peaceful transfer of power and senior officials have spoken in favour of lifting term limits, currently set at two terms.

Major opposition groups pushing Mauritanians to boycott election
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Abdel Aziz last year said he had no plans to extend the presidential mandate.

Still, police clashed with anti-government demonstrators in a series of protests in Nouakchott last week, and senators on Saturday occupied the senate building in protest.

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

Abdel Aziz has been an ally of the West in the fight against militants in the Sahara. He first came to power in a coup in 2008 and won a second term in 2014, but is barred by the constitution from running again.

Scrapping term limits would enable Abdel Aziz to follow leaders of more than a dozen other African countries including in Uganda, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and more recently Rwanda and Congo Republic.

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

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