The military regime that toppled Daddah in 1978 abolished the Constitution that had been ratified on May 20, 1961. Then in December 1980, when he unexpectedly announced a return to civilian rule, Haidalla promulgated a new provisional constitution. That draft constitution provided for a multiparty system and freedom of association, provisions Haidalla hoped would attract support from the labor union movement. Following an abortive coup attempt in March 1981 by former members of the military government, however, Haidalla reneged on his intention of returning Mauritania to civilian rule and scrapped the draft constitution.
The Constitutional Charter of the CMSN, which was promulgated on February 9, 1985, served as a de facto constitution in 1987. The charter unequivocally eliminated any of the pretenses of democracy embodied in the 1961 constitution. At the same time, it pledged adherence to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, in Article 14, presaged a return to democratic institutions and a new constitution that would bear some semblance to the 1961 Constitution.
The 1961 Constitution clearly reflected the influence of the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic in its dedication to liberal democratic principles and inalienable human rights as expressed in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, the Constitution underscored the state's determined quest for independence and unity by proclaiming Islam the official religion. Somewhat paradoxically, freedom of religion was also guaranteed. Strict adherence to both sets of principles would seemingly have given rise to conflict, especially in the area of jurisprudence; however, in practice the government sought with acceptable success to balance the demands of the two.
Under the Constitution, the government was composed of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive branch was headed by the president of the republic and included ministers whom he appointed and the administrative bureaucracy. The president was elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term and could serve an indefinite number of terms. From 1966 until the coup in 1978, all candidates for the office had to be nominated by the Mauritanian People's Party (Parti du Peuple Mauritanienne--PPM), be at least thirty-five years old, and have full exercise of their political and civil rights. In sharp contrast to its French antecedent, the Mauritanian Constitution strengthened presidential power by combining it with the function of prime minister, while making the National Assembly subordinate. Like a prime minister, the president participated in legislative processes that would otherwise reside in the domain of the National Assembly. At the same time, the Constitution prevented the president from dissolving the National Assembly, and it also denied the assembly the right to unseat the president by means of a vote of no confidence.
In its entirety, the Constitution came to resemble those of other francophone African states that were also adopted under the influence of General Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic and in response to the perceived need for strong, centralized leadership. In light of the highly fragmented polities typical of much of sub-Saharan Africa at that time, however, a system of checks and balances was thought to be overly cumbersome for the immediate tasks at hand.
Other presidential powers included commanding the armed forces; appointing civil servants, military officers, judges, and ambassadors; ratifying treaties and other international agreements; initiating or amending legislation; eliciting advisory opinions on proposed legislation from the Supreme Court; and exercising a temporary veto over legislation. Perhaps the president's greatest power lay in his right, in times of peril, to declare an emergency and exercise extraconstitutional authority.
The National Assembly was subordinate to the president. At independence, the assembly numbered forty deputies, all of whom were elected as a slate by universal suffrage for five-year terms. By 1971 the number had grown to fifty and by 1975 to seventy-eight, including the new deputies from the annexed portion of the Western Sahara, Tiris al Gharbiyya. The presidency of the assembly was the second highest position in the government and often the locus of traditionalist opposition to Daddah. Along with three vice presidents and two secretaries, the president of the assembly was elected from among the deputies. The assembly's limited power derived from Article 39 of the Constitution and included the formulation of broad policies on national defense, education, labor, and public administration. The assembly also had responsibility for legislating civil rights and taxation. All other legislative powers, including the implementation of specific policy decisions, fell to the president. In general, Daddah's handling of policy matters underscored the imbalance between the two branches of government. For example, although the president was required to present an annual message to the nation and might also provide supplemental statements to the assembly, he alone determined what information to share with legislators, who could not compel him to be more forthcoming. The president could also bypass the legislature completely by submitting proposed legislation to a popular referendum. Finally, the assembly's relatively short session, fixed at four months per year, limited the amount of legislation it could pass.
Constitutional amendments were permissible if they did not threaten the state or its republican form of government. Either the president or the National Assembly could propose an amendment, which would then require a two-thirds vote in the legislature in order to become law. If the proposed amendment received only a simple majority, the president could submit it as a referendum. In fact, the latter process was never necessary. Two major amendments were passed in the 1960s, one in 1965 institutionalizing one-party government, and a second in 1968 pertaining to local administration, the status of magistrates, and the designation of Hassaniya Arabic as an official language.
Although the Constitution did not provide for a system of checks and balances, the assembly did have three ways to limit presidential power. First, it could refuse requested budgetary appropriations, although the president could circumvent the assembly's budgetary veto by simply promulgating an interim budget based on total receipts of the previous year. Second, if able to muster a two-thirds vote, the assembly could impeach the president or any of his ministers for treason or plotting against the state. The Supreme Court, a body appointed by the president, would judge the charges in such cases. Finally, the assembly could, in effect, override a presidential veto if, after a second reading, the law received an absolute majority in the assembly and was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court.
In fact, the assembly's debates and votes were most often highly symbolic gestures that brought closure to a process initiated and dominated by the executive. In the early 1960s, however, the legislature often challenged the executive, only to be deluged with priority bills that in effect smothered any legislative initiatives. With the institutionalization of oneparty rule in 1965, engaging debate in the assembly was no longer possible, and the assembly's role became promotion of political integration at the expense of individual rights while strengthening party unity and discipline.
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