Mauritanians are voting for a new president as the incumbent leader warned that only his chosen successor can maintain stability in the West African country, while the opposition said it saw “worrying signs” of election irregularities.
The election on Saturday is the first in the nation’s coup-strewn history that looks set to see an elected president complete his mandate and transfer power to an elected successor, although the opposition has raised concerns that the vote could perpetuate a government dominated by military figures.
Some 1.5 million people are entitled to choose among six presidential candidates in the predominantly Muslim Saharan state.
Polling stations opened at 07:00 GMT and will close at 19:00 GMT, with preliminary results expected at the start of next week.
Mauritania‘s outgoing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is a general who originally came to power in a 2008 coup, won elections a year later and was again elected in 2014 in polls boycotted by the opposition.
He has previously warned that the opposition would reverse progress in the nation and is supporting the presidential bid of a loyal former aide, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani.
Ghazouani, a 62-year-old former general has campaigned on his security credentials and the outgoing president’s record on fighting armed groups.
“Mauritania has to choose between Mohamed Ould El Ghazouani – who wants to strive toward security, development and progress – or vote for a return to insecurity, bad management and corruption where there is hate, racism and destruction of national unity,” the outgoing president said at a press conference marking the end of campaigning.
Abdel Aziz is credited with reforming the army, clamping down on armed groups and pushing to develop remote regions.
But rights groups have accused the government of restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, while calling on the nation to do more to counter violence against women and slavery, which persists in the deeply conservative state even though Mauritania officially abolished it in 1981, the last country to do so.
Activists estimate tens of thousands of people still live in slavery. The government, however, denies that slavery is widespread.
“Anyone who dares to stand up against slavery, discrimination and other human rights violations and abuses is at risk of arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention and even torture,” said Kine Fatim Diop, a West Africa campaigner for the rights organisation.
Authorities also rejected an opposition request for foreign observers at the election.
This has raised alarm among the opposition, who have warned of potential vote fraud and accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) of bias.
“We remain vigilant, ready to denounce any attempt at fraud,” said main opposition challenger Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, 62, who said there had been “worrying signs”.
Boubacar alleged that representatives of his party were not allowed into certain polling stations in the country’s interior.
The president of Mauritania’s electoral commission, Mohamed Vall ould Belal, however, asserted that the election was free of irregularities.
If no one receives a majority of votes on Saturday, a runoff election will take place next month.