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Malian voters overwhelmingly approved amendments to the country’s constitution following a referendum that critics say is part of the military junta’s efforts to remain in power, despite the latter’s pledges to restore civilian rule, Agence France-Presse reported.

Results published over the weekend showed that 97 percent voted in favor of the changes, even though turnout was just over 39 percent.

Voting was hampered in central and northern Mali, amid an 11-year-old jihadist insurgency. Armed groups in those regions – which had previously signed a fragile peace agreement with the central government in 2015 – complained of ballot stuffing.

The amendments will further strengthen the role of the president, saying he will “determine the policies of the Nation.” Under the previous 1992 constitution, this role was assigned to the government.

The president will also have the right to hire and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet members, with the government only answering to him and not to parliament.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will be required to declare their wealth in an effort to crack down on corruption.

The referendum follows two coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021. The military takeover received swift condemnation from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, prompting junta leader Colonel Assimi Goita to promise the restoration of civilian rule in March 2024.

Goita noted that the return of a civilian government would be possible after institutional reforms – including this month’s referendum.

While the junta said the reforms are necessary to overhaul the Malian state, critics and opponents countered that the changes are part of the military government’s plan to consolidate power.

The two coups and recent amendments come as Mali continues to grapple with a jihadist insurgency.

The junta has also clashed with Mali’s traditional ally France and the United Nations Security Council over the presence of foreign troops in the country.

While France has withdrawn its troops, Bamako called on the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to pull out from the West African country, saying it has failed to provide security.

MINUSMA’s mandate expires on June 30.

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