A vast majority of Mauritanians, an estimated 76% of the population, voted in a referendum last week, on whether to amend the constitution. They majority backed a new constitution, with 96.97% voting yes, according to results announced in Nouakchott. Even if the results were somewhat expected, the importance of the publicized figures is that they reflected, for the first time in the country’s history, real and objective data, and not merely falsified numbers or the product of the government’s imagination.
Therefore, the latest referendum can be considered a real shift in Mauritanian politics. Three main elements stand out:
The first is connected to the political program, which is included in the constitutional reform, inasmuch as it has laid the foundations for the peaceful transition of power by limiting the president’s term in office to five years, with the possibility of extending it only once. It also put in place legal obstacles to ensure this article is not amended.
This article is important because it offers a procedural solution to the political crises that have shaken Mauritania’s stability in the last thirty years. Since 1978, the transition of power has occurred through military coups, in order to solve acute internal crises.
In 1978, the military coup, which deposed Mauritania’s first President, Mokhtar Ould Dada, took place in the backdrop of the Sahara war. It provided an exit strategy for a military defeat, which almost destroyed the newly independent state.
Once more, in 1984, Lieutenant Colonel Ould Haidalla’s regime was toppled, at a time of acute political tension, when politicians were either in exile or imprisoned in Mauritania.
The latest military coup, on 3 August 2005, which overthrew Ould Taya, also represented a resolution to an increasingly acute internal crisis and a political dead-end. The proposed constitutional amendments are meant to act as a compulsory framework to impose a peaceful transition of power and to bring to a halt the unconstitutional changes witnessed so far.
The second feature is connected to the administration of the vote, which for the first time in the country’s history, took place according to the laws and regulations of a free democracy. Importantly, the military government reviewed the electoral register posting it on the internet; it also appointed the independent national commission for elections, formed by the government in cooperation with political figures, to oversee the vote. Despite differing from other votes, where competition is fierce and interests clash, the constitutional vote has proved a success and has demonstrated the administration’s ability to organize a referendum with transparency, impartiality and neutrality.
Thirdly, the recent referendum will have an effect on the politics in Mauritania. Indicators point to a hot summer, both politically and weather wise.
Undoubtedly, the most prominent transformation is the fragmented and splintered political scene, in the wake of the absence of a dominant party, such as the main political party during Ould Dada’s reign, or “the government’s party” as the ruling Republican Party used to be referred to during Ould Taya’s reign.
While efforts have taken place to form coalition groups and end this political fragmentation, political figures are worried about the effect of these divisions on the future of politics in Mauritania, given the need for a strong executive power that relies on a stable parliamentary majority. Can these Mauritanian characteristics form the basis for an Arab-wide model, as some political observers, who were dazzled by the current experiment, have claimed?
It might be an exaggeration to say so. Mauritania has its own specific and widely known attributes, which cannot be generalized. The success of this experiment is tied to the progress of the current transition after the parliamentary, municipal and presidential elections in November 2006 and March 2007 respectively.
In spite of all this, the latest Mauritanian development poses a number of procedural frameworks to solve the crisis of Arab democratic transformation with regards to the peaceful transition of power, by limiting the ruler’s time in power, and the organization of electoral contests and guaranteeing their transparency and impartiality.
If this transition period is a success in Mauritania, Sahrawi wisdom would have succeeded where other Arabs have failed.