“In the higher interests of the nation and to preserve a peaceful social climate, I have taken the responsibility of deciding to suspend the holding of a referendum on revising the Constitution,” President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said on television Friday evening.
The proposed reforms, the first constitutional revision in 25 years, aim to put in place some commitments made in a 2015 peace accord between the government and former rebel groups in the north of the country.
They also call for creating a Senate, with a third of the seats appointed by Keita himself — a plan that critics said aimed at consolidating his own power.
The opposition and its supporters took to the streets of the capital Bamako Saturday in jubilation.
“We are here to celebrate a victory, the withdrawal of the referendum plan,” Amadou Thiam, deputy head of a campaign group called “Don’t Touch my Constitution,” told a crowd of several thousand.
The Malian government had initially scheduled to hold the referendum on July 9 2017. But on June 21, in the face of mounting criticism, it announced the ballot would be postponed indefinitely.
On July 5, the opposition won a partial victory in the Constitutional Court, which agreed that the duration of the term of senators designated by the president had to be specified.
But it rejected the opposition’s request to cancel the referendum itself.
Keita admitted in his televised address that with the current atmosphere in the country his attempts to persuade voters of the benefits of the change “would hardly be heard or accepted.”
Government forces are still struggling in northern Mali with remnants of the militant groups who in 2012 hijacked a rebellion led by Tuareg separatists to take over key cities.
They were removed from their strongholds by a French-led intervention in early 2013, but remain active in the area despite the peace deal.