The referendum was marked by a low voter turnout. Photo: Reuters

Malian voters overwhelmingly approved changes to the constitution in a referendum, marking a key step in plans to restore civilian rule, provisional results showed Friday.

The military leadership has made the draft constitution an essential cornerstone for the rebuilding of Mali.

Ninety-seven percent of the referendum votes were cast in favour of the changes, the electoral authority said, with voter turnout put at 39.4%.

Opponents of the plan view the vote as meant to keep leaders in the military in power beyond the presidential election scheduled for February 2024, despite their initial commitment to hand over to civilians after the elections.

Powerful president

The new constitution will strengthen the role of the president, a change that has spurred expectations that military leader Colonel Assimi Goita intends to vie for the job.

The changes will also give pride of place to the armed forces and emphasise "sovereignty", the military's mantra since it came to power in 2020.

Voting was hampered in many towns in the centre and north of the land-locked West African country, either by fear of attacks or by political disagreements.