‘Historic’ Mauritanian elections contested by opposition

Ghazouani and his allies seemed surprised by the measures and urged authorities to respect the rights of the opposition.
Saturday 29/06/2019
Peaceful transition. Ruling party presidential candidate and former Defence Minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani casts his ballot in Nouakchott, Mauritania, June 22.
Peaceful transition. Ruling party presidential candidate and former Defence Minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani casts his ballot in Nouakchott, Mauritania, June 22.

TUNIS - Mauritania’s ruling party candidate, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, was elected president with 52% of the vote in June 22 elections, ushering a rare peaceful power transition in a country often plagued by military coups. But numerous opposition candidates rejected the outcome that brought the former military general to power, saying it amounted to “another army coup.”

The government launched a swift crackdown as opposition protesters took to the streets, cutting off internet access and deploying army soldiers and paramilitary gendarmes. Officials said the unrest was being orchestrated as part of a “foreign plot aimed at undermining the country’s stability.”

Scores of protesters were arrested following the elections, including dozens from neighbouring states Mali, Senegal and Gambia.

“Police stations are filled by detained protesters,” said lawyer Fatima Mbaye, who heads the Mauritanian Association of Human Rights. “I’m surprised by the flare-up of such violence and crackdown by the authorities,” she added.

Authorities took steps to prevent demonstrations from gaining traction. The foreign ministry summoned the Senegalese, Malian and Gambian ambassadors, urging them to tell their nationals to “refrain” from engaging in protests.

The authorities also brought down the nation’s entire internet network in an attempt “to prevent images of security forces’ brutality from circulating on social media,” said Mbaye.

Ghazouani and his allies seemed surprised by the measures and urged authorities to respect the rights of the opposition.

His campaign chief Lahcen Ould Labet called on the government to restore internet access and free the detained protesters, including foreign nationals.

“If these measures are not taken swiftly, it means that the outgoing president has decided to mar the beginning of our five-year mandate,” he said.

Interior Minister Ahmedou Ould Abdallah said authorities had “foiled a plot aimed at undermining the security and the stability of Mauritania” that was “masterminded by invisible foreign hands,” without elaborating.

Mauritanian officials have been especially critical of Gulf state Qatar, which they severed ties with in 2017 over its alleged support for terror.

Outgoing president Ould Abdel Aziz assailed Qatar at the end of the presidential campaign June 21 over its alleged role in spreading “ruin” throughout the Arab world.

“Qatar’s government contributed to the ruin of Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen,” said Ould Abdel Aziz, adding that it had also spread insecurity in the West through its support of “terrorism and extremism.”

“What Qatar has done in some Arab countries is equal to the destruction that Nazi Germany caused in the past in Europe,” said Ould Abdel Aziz.

“It is a great honour for me to sever ties with Qatar. I did the same with Israel.”

Mauritania’s transition of power could make it a model in the Maghreb region, where many states are mired in political turbulence and leadership struggles.

Algeria, which ousted former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April, has been locked in a power struggle between protesters demanding political overhaul and army leaders who favour a more gradual change in leadership.

Libya is in the midst of a bloody civil war pitting an Islamist-backed government in Tripoli against a rival administration in the east. In early April, military strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is allied with the eastern government, advanced on the capital, Tripoli, to “liberate” the city from what he said were “terrorists and militias” operating there.

In neighbouring Tunisia, economic stagnation, lingering security threats and political gridlock have caused widespread public discontent. There is a cloud of uncertainty surrounding scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

France hailed the elections in Mauritania as a “historic democratic moment” and praised the “good proceedings of the presidential elections.”

European Union and African observers also praised the voting process and said they noted no major flaws in how it was conducted.

“The European Union hails the higher voter turnout in the elections which proceeded in an atmosphere of peace and calmness and in conditions that were mostly good,” the European observers said in a statement.

The hotly contested election revealed striking social and political transformations in Mauritania, a desert nation where tribal and ethnic loyalties are strong.

Ghazouani, who served as army chief of staff before being nominated defence minister last year, easily won the polls. Anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid finished second with only 18.58% of the vote, according to results published by the Mauritanian polls watchdog, the CENI electoral commission.

He was trailed by former Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, who received 17.87% of the vote, according to the official figures.

Journalist Baba Hamidou Kane finished with 8.71% of the vote, while political newcomer Mohamed Ould Moloud received 2.44%.

The CENI made all voting results public in a bid to dispel allegations of vote-rigging.

Still, many of the defeated candidates alleged the vote count was flawed and called for a more precise tally from individual polling stations. But they also maintained that their bid to overturn the results would be peaceful and legal.

Division within Mauritania’s leading opposition parties prevented them from uniting behind one candidate.

Going forward, supporters of the opposition argued they should negotiate with Ghazouani to reach a comprehensive reform agenda that will bring stability and economic prosperity.

Ghazouani, a career military official, is close to Ould Abdel Aziz and was widely expected to succeed him.

Ould Abdel Aziz had said he would step down this year at the end of his second term.

By peacefully handing over power, Ould Abdel Aziz would bring Mauritania closer in line with the rest of West Africa and join African leaders working to instil democratic principles at home.