Middle East

Mauritanians vote for president, with insider tipped to win

For the first time since Mauritanias independence, its citizens voted on Saturday for a successor to a democratically-elected president, though a government insider campaigning on a message of continuity is heavily tipped to win.

Polls opened at 7 am (0700 GMT) in the election to replace President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, 62, who since seizing power in a 2008 coup has positioned himself as an ally of the West in the fight against ISIS extremist group.

Located on the northwest African coast and bordered to the east by the Sahara Desert, the country of fewer than 5 million people gained independence from colonial power France in 1960.

Abdel Aziz is stepping aside after serving the maximum two five-year elected terms and has thrown his support behind 62-year-old Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, a former general and defense minister.

Abdel Aziz could maintain significant influence behind the scenes. He said on Thursday that he had not ruled out running again in five years when his term limits would reset.

In the capital Nouakchotts wealthy Tevragh Zeina neighborhood, more than 100 voters queued calmly in a dusty school courtyard to cast their ballots.

“I thank God that everything is going well,” said Abderrahime Sidi, 35, after voting. “We hope that the results will be consistent with the expectations of all Mauritanians.”

Gilles Yabi, the founder of West African think tank WATHI, said Ghazouani was the clear favorite and would likely continue to rule in Abdel Azizs mould, but that he could still surprise.

“Ghazouani is someone who is very discreet. It could well happen that the change is not merely cosmetic,” Yabi said.

Five candidates besides Ghazouani are on the ballot. Former Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, who is backed by Mauritanias biggest Islamist party, has drawn large crowds on the campaign trail and is considered Ghazouanis main rival.

Boubacar and another opposition candidate, Mohamed Ould Maouloud, told reporters at their polling places that they were concerned about potential fraud. They have pointed to the absence of international observers and the printing of ballot papers by a company with ties to the ruling party.

Election authorities said there were no political considerations in awarding the contract.

Economy and security

Ghazouani has campaigned on the progress made under Abdel Aziz on economic and security issues. Gross domestic product is growing and will receive an extra boost when a large offshore gas field starts producing early next decade.

Tourists are also starting to return for desert tours after years of staying away following a series of kidnappings in 2009.

In recent years, Mauritania has been spared the attacks by extremist militants linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS that have devastated other countries in West Africas Sahel region, including neighboringRead More – Source