Mauritania's constitutional referendum

Mauritania -- yes, the poor, backward, drought-stricken, desert state of Mauritania -- has voted for constitutional amendments in a national referendum that imposes term limits on the presidency. Early results on the 25 June referendum indicate that Mauritanians approved by 97% the reform, with at least 76% of eligible voters casting their votes.

The reforms they voted on included limiting presidential terms to two five-year terms and preventing the president from holding on to his post if older than 75. While the former reform, while not a first, is rare enough in the region (and in places like Tunisia, Ben Ali amended the constitution to remove term limits), the latter is the first time anywhere, as far as I know, that age limits have been placed on a president. If this rule was applied, neither Egypt nor France would be able to hold on to their current presidents!


Explaining his motives for the referendum, the leader of the junta that staged a coup in August 2005, Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, said:
If the president remains in power for 18, 20 or 30 years and plans to pass his position on to his son or another person of his choice, this would be personal power and a way of ruling that does not take into account the interest of the country or its citizens.
He's not going to be popular at the next Arab League meeting.

There are also further precautions in the constitution: presidential candidates must pledge that he will not back any revision to the constitution that would change the provisions on presidential terms. The constitution's article 99 also states that no constitutional amendment of presidential terms can be made at all.

Naturally, all of this can be changed by a despot who comes along later. But Mauritanians did suffer under Maaouya Ould Taya, the ousted leader who ruled from 1984 to 2005. Perhaps they've learned the hard way that these rules are valuable. If it works out, they'll be putting to shame Arab autocrats and giving new legitimacy to palace coups -- as I remember Egyptian columnist Fahmi Howeidy predicting last August.

Jonathan Edelstein over at the Head Heeb is less sanguine about the referendum and points out that the constitution still remains strongly presidential, with the president having considerable power over the prime minister and the cabinet. While I agree with him on that point, I still think the insistence on term limits is quite a step forward. Now we'll have to see how parliamentary elections this Fall and presidential elections next Spring will be carried out.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.