Mauritanians head to polls for legislative, local elections

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz urged citizens not to vote for Islamists, which he said could bring the country to “ruin.”
Saturday 01/09/2018
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. (AFP)
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. (AFP)

Mauritania, a frontline state in the fight against Islamic extremism, voted on Saturday in legislative, regional and local elections that will test head of state Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz's record seven months before a presidential vote.

Military personnel cast their ballots Friday to free themselves up to provide security in the vast and arid west African state with a registered electorate of some 1.4 million.

Polling opened at 0700 GMT in the capital Nouakchott but several voters were sent to different polling stations due to last minute changes, an AFP reporter said.

President Ould Abdel Aziz hailed the "peaceful and democratic nature" of the ballot after casting his vote but a leading opposition figure Mohamed Ould Moloud deplored logistical snags and hinted the outcome could be flawed.

"There are voters who have been misdirected and don't know where to vote," he said, adding that there were "serious signs of possible fraud."

The opposition boycotted the last polls in 2013 but a record 98 parties are taking part this time. Voting ends at 1900 GMT with results not expected until the middle of next week. There are no international observers.

"I voted for people I support in different parties including some from the ruling party and others in the opposition," a woman who identified herself as Fatimatou told AFP.

"It's not easy," she added after taking eight minutes to fill in the forms and deposit them in five different ballot boxes.

Potential run-off elections would take place on September 15.

Ould Abdel Aziz, 61, who came to power in a coup in 2008, won elections in 2009 and again in 2014 for a second five-year term.

He has been frequently accused by opposition figures and NGOs of rights abuses, including the arrest of a former senator and the "secretive" detention of a blogger.

Ould Abdel Aziz says he will not seek a third mandate, which would be against the constitution, but statements by ministers and supporters have allowed suspicions to flourish.

In the lead up to the elections, the president traveled the country rallying support for his Union for the Republic (UPR) party, which is looking to secure an overwhelming majority in parliament.

In campaign speeches, Ould Abdel Aziz urged voters not to vote for Islamist politicians, which he said “are all extremists” and could bring the country to “ruin.”

“Activists of the political Islamist parties are extremists. They take up weapons when they fail to achieve their objectives and goals by political ways,” he said August 30.

“These extremist parties are responsible for ruining Arab societies and Arab nations. We are hearing them here speaking in the name of Islam and Islam is our religion and not for them to exploit it in politics and collect money.”

Ould Abdel Aziz warned that if Islamists were to take control of the country, it could suffer the same fate as Syria and Libya, where, he said, such groups had co-opted popular uprisings to entrench their ideology.

“Muslim Brotherhood parties and other Islamists caused the ruin and destruction of nations wealthier and stronger than Mauritania,” Ould Abdel Aziz said. “We must block the route to them. We must shut the door before them in the elections to shield our nation and protect our society.”

Jemil Ould Mensour, of the Islamist party Tewassoul responded that it was the president who was fostering a dangerous climate in the country.  

"It is Mr Aziz who took up arms against an elected regime and is assassinating democracy," Mensour charged, referring to the 2008 coup that brought him into power. 

Veteran opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah, who heads the Gathering for Democracy (RFD), has urged voters to make "the necessary leap to get rid of dictatorship and generalised bankruptcy."

Ould Abdel Aziz’s Union for the Republic is campaigning largely on changes it made in the 2017 constitution, abolishing the senate and bringing in a new national anthem and flag. Voters endorsed the controversial measures in a referendum, while the opposition warned they would give the president more power.

(Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)