Mauritania's Independent Electoral Commission announced the results of a special constitutional referendum which took place on August 5, 2018. With a 53% voter turnout, 85.61% of ballots were in favor of the proposed amendments. A coalition of opposition groups was quick to denounce the plebiscite as "unconstitutional". The opposition contends that the proposals, which importantly included the abolishment of the Senate, were a step in the direction towards tyranny. Sponsored by President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, the amendments to the constitution also included revisions to Article 8 of the original 1991 constitution, which covered the national flag and national anthem of Mauritania. They further included the proposed establishment of regional councils; the abolishment of the constitutional court; and the abolishment of a number of advisory councils.
The referendum itself has served to sharpen political and social divisions within Mauritania, with some calling out President Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power in a 2008 coup, for alleged vote rigging and oppression. The opposition also claims that their call for a boycott of the referendum was successful, thus casting doubt on the legitimacy of the results. Additionally, the manner in which the plebiscite was carried out appears itself to be constitutionally questionable.
The constitutional referendum brought back to the fore a September, 2016 initiative by the government to hold a "National Dialogue", which was itself boycotted by a number of opposition groups, including the Democratic Forces bloc led by Ahmed Ould Dada; the Rally for Democracy and Unity, together with a number of political parties and trade unions; and a number of other prominent individuals. At the time, opponents of the proposed National Dialogue felt that no guarantees existed which would allow for parity between the various groups participating in the dialogue. Similarly, opponents of the latest referendum maintain that these proposals would concentrate too much power in the presidency, contending that successful political transition in emerging democracies requires the distribution of authority across different institutions which, they claim, would help to instill the principles of democratic participation across society and different levels of the state.
The amendments to the 1991 constitution now give the president the right to do away with the Senate, the upper chamber of the country's elected legislature, and to invest its authority in the lower chamber of parliament known as the National Assembly. The proposals made by President Ould Abdel Aziz also envisage the creation of regional councils which assume another part of the role of the Senate. Specifically, the regional councils would be tasked with managing development in rural areas. One point which remains unclarified is how the regional councils would fit alongside existing "municipal councils" which, in turn, have long operated in a legally ambiguous space. These and other factors drove the Senate to oppose Ould Abdel Aziz's amendments on March 18, 2017, claiming that the proposals would intensify regional rivalries across the various provinces of Mauritania.
The proposals also suggest disbanding the previous Constitutional Court, which is made up of a combination of judges and legislators and which acts as Mauritania's supreme judicial body, and replacing it with a new body of judges appointed by the president. While the proposals would do away with the influence of legislators on the judicial process, they create the parallel problem of influence by the executive on the judiciary. Additionally, the new Court would lose the right to bring charges against the president or cabinet ministers, instead transferring that right to the National Assembly. Another proposal which was put to voters in the August 5 ballot was the expansion of scope of the Supreme Council for Fatwas and Grievances, a national body to be responsible for Islamic religious rulings and arbitration of legal cases involving property rights and family law. Previously, such cases were handled by the Higher National Council of Islamic Affairs in conjunction with a presidential mediator. Finally, voters at the referendum were asked to codify a change to the Mauritanian flag by adding two red rectangles on the two sides of the present flag.
A common element in all of these changes is the legally ambiguous nature in which they were carried out. While Article 38 of the 1991 constitution allows for the primacy of "popular consultation over any matter of national significance", Article 99 makes changes to the constitution subject to the approval of two-thirds of the National Assembly and two-thirds of the now-dissolved Senate.
Mauritania: Political Discord and Underdevelopment
A coordinating body of Mauritanian political parties, including the Rally for Democracy and Unity, and the Democratic Forces Bloc, the Sawab Party, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (known in Arabic by the acronym IRA) has cast doubt on the official results of the referendum. The opposition claim to have documentary evidence from monitors and journalists that the vast majority of Mauritanian voters stayed at home for the polling. These allegations of misconduct during the referendum served to heighten existing tensions between the opposition and the ruling regime, leading to police intervention to separate clashing protestors from the two groups in the capital Nouakchott. These clashes resulted in numerous arrests and left many protestors injured.
The continuing political discord in the country has exacerbated the suffering of Mauritanians as a result of underdevelopment. That the country ranked 142 out of a total of 160 countries on an index of corruption highlights the challenges ahead for the government in building resilient state institutions. Compounding this issue is a public debt which has reached 100% of GDP and unemployment levels which stood at 12% at the end of 2016. Poverty in Mauritania remains dire even by regional standards, with 70% of the population living on less than $2 per day, and 23% surviving on less than $1.25 per day, contributing to a state of severe food insecurity. In sum, the Mauritanian authorities have no tangible claims to development over the past nine years. On the contrary, Mauritanian public debt has increased more than 80% since Ould Abdel Aziz's came to power, from $2.6 billion to $4.25 billion today.
Repercussions of the Referendum
Ould Abdel Aziz may have succeeded in bringing about the constitutional changes he wanted, but this may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. The disconnect between the regime and the opposition over the constitutionality and, ultimately, the legitimacy of the changes proposed by the president have reverberated throughout wider Mauritanian society, setting the tone for a crisis which is likely to last until and throughout the upcoming presidential elections in 2019. At that point, it will become clear if Ould Abdel Aziz intends to exploit the constitutional amendments to maintain his grip on power by either contesting a third presidential term (which he presently denies) or by backing another contender ushered into the presidency. Until that point, attempts at a Mauritanian political consensus, and with it a chance at economic development and genuine political reforms, remains futile.
Mauritania's ruling regime failed to raise the debate over the constitutional amendments above political disputes. For such a partisan dispute to become so central is symptomatic of undemocratic regimes which lack uncontested legitimacy within their own borders. The decision to carry out the referendum was taken without an inclusive political dialogue between pro-regime and opposition political forces. Remaining uncertainty about whether or not Ould Abdel Aziz wants to remain in power after 2019 is further casting doubt on Mauritania's political future, compromising its credibility and exacerbating an already dire economic situation.
 "Mauritania votes to abolish senate by referendum", Al Jazeera Online, August 7, 2017: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/08/mauritania-votes-abolish-senate-referendum-170807003416088.html
 Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, Transparency International, The Global Anti-Corruption Coalition, available online: https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2016
 Data taken from World Bank Data, accessed online: http://data.worldbank.org/country/mauritania?view=chart
 The State of Food Insecurity in the World: Meeting the 2015 International Hunger Targets: Taking Stock of Uneven Progress, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, available online: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4646e.pdf