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Mauritania Votes to Broaden President's Power as Opposition Boycotts

Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz addresses the 2015 Sustainable Development Summit, Sept. 26, 2015, at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Mauritania has voted in favor 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 a little over half of the population voted.

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.

Capital on high alert

The capital Nouakchott was on high alert before the vote on Saturday due to 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.

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.

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.

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.

Abdel Aziz takes power in 2008

Abdel Aziz has been an ally of the West in the fight against Islamists 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.