Mauritania heads to polls to elect new president

A woman attends voting at a polling station during presidential election in Nouakchott Mauritania Saturday. — Reuters

A woman attends voting at a polling station during presidential election in Nouakchott Mauritania Saturday. — Reuters

President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz end of tenure has allowed the country to hold its first democratic handover of power since independence.

Abdel Aziz surprised many of his compatriots and worldwide observers by stepping aside after serving the maximum two five-year elected terms in Mauritania, a country of fewer than 5 million people comprising a large chunk of the western Sahara Desert.

Six candidates are competing for the presidency, with the country's defence minister and the current president's close ally, Mohamen Ould Ghazouani being the frontrunner of the race.

Former prime minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, who is backed by Mauritania's biggest Islamist party, has drawn large crowds on the campaign trail and is considered Ghazouani's main rival.

Mauritania electoral commission has vowed a fair and free election, despite the opposition's claims that the body is biased in favour of the governing party.

Mauritanians will vote for a new president on Saturday in what is expected to be its first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960.

With a clear majority of the votes, the 62-year-old Ghazouani, former head of the domestic security service, has won outright with no need for a second-round runoff election.

Authorities rejected an opposition request for foreign observers at the election.

Candidates have been trekking around the vast conservative Muslim nation, a country twice the size of France but with a population of just 4.5 million, to woo voting groups.

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But the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) said that no significant incidents had come to light. More coups followed in 1984, 2005 and 2008.

President Abdel Aziz himself was head of the presidential guard when he seized power in a 2008 coup.

Most opposition parties then boycotted the 2014 election in which Aziz won 82 percent of the vote according to official results.

According to the constitution the president is barred from seeking another term, making Aziz one of the few leaders in recent years across the continent to respect term limits and not try to change the constitution.

As the Sahara sun rises high and begins to beat down, a hubbub stirs at the school gates as presidential candidate Biram Dah Abeid appears dressed in white, surrounded by a throng of supporters who reach out to snap him on their camera phones.

While the security situation has deteriorated in Mali even after the militants were ousted from control, Mauritania has not seen the spillover in violence experienced by Mali's other neighbours Niger and Burkina Faso.

The anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, who was elected to Parliament in September from his prison cell, has been campaigning on a platform that Mauritania is not making enough progress towards ending forced labour including slavery.

He has made pronouncements denying slavery is widespread.

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