Mauritania’s ruling party leads in elections, faces stiff competition in second round

The Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate in Mauritania came second, behind UPR with 14 seats.
Sunday 16/09/2018
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Nouakchott, on September 1.               (AFP)
Strong turnout. A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Nouakchott, on September 1. (AFP)

TUNIS - Official figures indicate that Mauritania’s ruling party is well ahead in parliamentarian, regional and municipal elections but will face tough competition in the second round.

The complex voting process was peaceful despite intense contests involving more than 6,000 candidates from 96 political parties of various ideological and ethnic hues to confirm the stability of the country at the frontline of jihadism as well as communal and ethnic strife in the Sahel and Sahara region.

“The elections were organised in good conditions and they were held in peace,” said the observer team of the African Union in statement. The United Nations praised Mauritania for having “peaceful polls.”

Turnout for the first round September 1 was 73.4%, said Mohamed Vall Ould Belal, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission in a country with 1.4 million registered voters.

“The strong participation of the Mauritanian people in these elections in peaceful and well-disciplined manner underscored its political maturity and commitment to democracy,” said Ould Belal, a former leading opposition figure.

“The elections faced several difficulties but were successful. The time was short to organise these different elections at the same time with a record participation of candidates, voters and political groups amid the rainy season that added to the difficulties of transport and movement of people,” he added.

The ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz won 67 parliamentary seats from the 131 seats decided in the first round of voting.

Its candidates will compete for 22 seats left in the second round. It they win 17 seats in the run-off, UPR can claim a “crushing majority” in the 157-member National Assembly.

Ould Abdel Aziz urged supporters to deliver a strong UPR majority in parliament to “protect the gains of stability and economic development” and “ensure the continuity and reinforcement of the regime” as he has promised to step down in the next few months.

Mauritania is to have presidential elections next year, a test whether the country will have a peaceful transfer of power for the first time without the intervention of the military.

The UPR claims 1.1 million registered members. It enjoys all the benefits of incumbency including the record of Ould Abdel Aziz, widely praised for fostering political freedom and development of multiparty democracy.

Opposition groups showed a combative spirit in the elections because they feared an overwhelming UPR majority might lead Ould Abdel Aziz, who has been president since August 2009, to extend his stay in power.

Leading figures in government and the UPR have urged him to continue as president when his second mandate ends next year, arguing his departure would leave a power vacuum and affect the county’s stability.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate in Mauritania, the National Rally for Reform and Development known as Tewassoul, came second, behind UPR with 14 seats.

A dozen other parties shared the 40 seats decided in the first round. The opposition Gathering for Democracy, headed by Ahmed Ould Daddah and Mohamed Ould Moloud’s Union of Forces of Progress each claimed three seats.

Anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, the runner-up in 2014’s presidential election, became the first politician to win a seat in parliament from a prison cell.

UPR won all four of the 13 regional councils decided in the first round.

The UPR also won most of the 111 municipalities decided in the first round. There are still 108 municipalities to be contested in the second round.

Nearly 500,000 ballots were declared “void,” mostly in rural areas as voters struggled with long lists of candidates to distinguish between names and symbols of 98 parties and political groupings, results from the electoral commission showed.

The second round will tell whether voters heed the warning from Ould Abdel Aziz against casting ballots for Tewassoul, whose candidates are well-positioned to win if the leading opposition groups make good on promises to back anti-UPR candidates.

“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.

Ould Abdel Aziz shrugged off the idea that there are moderates among Islamists.

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

Mauritanian political writer Ismail Yacoub Ould al Cheikh said Tewassoul was taking a cue from Islamists in Morocco and Tunisia to “showcase their moderation while they focus on building a strong organisation that will allow them to take over in Mauritania in the near future.”

“They are growing steadily in the number of members and strong organisation. Those who want to beat them must show they are building similar organisations or they have to keep silent,” added Ould al Cheikh.