Mauritanian opposition gears up for elections

Main Mauritanian opposition groups agree to ‘electoral accord’ ahead of September’s legislative elections.
Sunday 01/07/2018
A Mauritanian woman casts her vote in the country’s constitutional referendum, at a polling station in Nouakchott, last year. (AFP)
A Mauritanian woman casts her vote in the country’s constitutional referendum, at a polling station in Nouakchott, last year. (AFP)

TUNIS - The main Mauritanian opposition groups agreed to an “electoral accord” ahead of September’s legislative elections, a key test for political parties gearing up for next year’s presidential race.

Mauritanian political analysts said if opposition leaders do not put up a strong challenge to the ruling party, the country’s prospects of securing its first legitimate democratic transition could be in jeopardy.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz reiterated that he would not stand for re-election next year, allowing for a peaceful transition of power for the first time.

Mauritania’s history has been marred by repeated military coups, beginning with the first post-independence president, Mokhtar Ould Daddah.

Ould Daddah, hailed for unifying a long-divided country, was ousted in a military coup in 1978 after a costly attempt to annex part of the Western Sahara following Spain’s withdrawal.

The most recent military coup took place in 2008, putting Ould Abdel Aziz in power.

Despite the opposition’s determination to change the political scene, Ould Abdel Aziz’s strong record, which includes enhancing the security and stability of the country, is making it difficult.

Ould Abdel Aziz will gain even more prominence by hosting the first African Union summit in Mauritania in early July, during which he will play an outsized role in dealing with regional crises.

One issue that will be front and centre is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which has increased tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Egypt fears the project will reduce its share of the Nile River, which provides almost all its freshwater but Ethiopia says the dam is essential for its economic development.

Libya will also be on the agenda, with discussions on how to proceed from its more than 7-year conflict.

For Mauritania, however, politicians have their focus on 2019.

Ten centrist and nationalist groups agreed to an “electoral accord,” to pool financial and organisational resources to help opposition candidates win seats in the parliamentary, regional and municipal elections September 1.

“We are not going only to participate in the next elections. We are determined to change the regime,” said a joint statement by the ten parties, operating under the umbrella group the National Forum for Democracy and Unity (FNDU).

The FNDU previously boycotted elections during Ould Abdel Aziz’s tenure, arguing that polls were rigged. This time, however, the FNDU, its allies and other loosely affiliated political groups plan to challenge the president’s Union for the Republic (UPR) party.

Ould Abdel Aziz was elected president in 2009 with 53% of the vote and re-elected in 2014 with 82%.

His UPR party aims to preserve its role as the main ruling party and finish what leaders call the “president’s project.” It announced it had recruited more than 1 million volunteers ahead of September’s elections. Mauritania’s population is more than 4 million, with the number of eligible voters estimated at 1.4 million.

Opposition leaders attacked the president and the UPR over their domestic policies, saying they left poor Mauritanians to die from starvation following a severe drought.

In an apparent bid to embarrass the government before the summit, the opposition said in a statement that “the regime is turning its back on the suffering of the citizens because of its mismanagement policy and the rife corruption spreading to all the state bodies.”

“The regime shoulders all the responsibility because it has failed to intervene to help the people face the repercussions of the drought Mauritania is experiencing,” it added, reporting the “death of ten people” from starvation in the small village of Izrafiya in the far-east of the desert country.

The Interior Ministry denied the opposition’s claims, saying there were only 72 cases of malnourishment among the 200 villagers of Izrafiya, and that the government provided care to those in need.

Mauritania media quoted herders and farmers saying authorities failed to provide adequate care for citizens affected by the drought. However, local media also said the summit could benefit many citizens who will see increased business.