Mon Aug 7, 2017 08:53AM
A woman casts her vote in Mauritania’s constitutional referendum on August 5, 2017 at the polling station in Nouakchott. (Photo by AFP)
A woman casts her vote in Mauritania’s constitutional referendum on August 5, 2017 at the polling station in Nouakchott. (Photo by AFP)

Mauritanians have voted to abolish the upper house of the country’s parliament and change the national flag in a controversial referendum boycotted by the opposition.

The national electoral commission said on Sunday that 53.73 percent of the nation’s eligible voters took part in the referendum, with 85 percent of them voting to abolish the Senate.

Critics view the vote as a victory for President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who had described the Senate as “useless and too costly” and decided to have it abolished after the body rejected his proposal to change the constitution.

The opposition, which boycotted the referendum, says by abolishing the Senate, Abdel Aziz becomes the sole decision-maker and could scrap presidential term limits to remain at the helm. It also said the vote was marred by fraud.

The capital, Nouakchott, was on high alert before the vote on Saturday due to opposition protests in the week before. Voting, however, went ahead without any incident.

Last week, police clashed with anti-government protesters in the country. Senators also occupied the Senate building in a show of protest on Saturday.

The resource-rich African country has never had a peaceful transfer of power, with senior officials speaking in favor of lifting presidential term limits, currently set at two terms.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (Photo by AFP)

Abdel Aziz, last year, said he had no plans to extend the presidential mandate.

The leader, who has cordial relations with the West, 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.