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FOCUS: MAURITANIA
Mauritania at a crossroads
A former slave, an economist and a general are vying for the top job in Nouakchott.
Last Modified: 18 Jul 2009 10:00 GMT

Some 1.3 million people will vote in Mauritania's democratic elections on July 18 [EPA]

 
Less than a year after a military coup deposed their democratically-elected government, Mauritanians head to the ballot box to vote for a new president.

On July 18, some 1.3 million people will vote in elections that were originally scheduled for June 6 but were delayed after opposition parties threatened to boycott the polls.

International observers will monitor the election that comes against the backdrop of a series of events that rocked the country and shattered its budding democracy.

In 2005, the army deposed Colonel Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya who ruled the country with an iron fist for a quarter of a century.

In a rare move, the army relinquished control to civilian rule in 2007, and Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi won national elections to become the first democratically-elected president since independence in 1960.

The election was hailed by the international community as one of the best examples of good governance in western Africa.

Coup d'etat

But the spring of democracy was short lived. In 2008, a rift developed between the president and General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the commander of the Republican Guard.

Key candidates

 Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz - general and leader of the military who orchestrated the August 2008 coup against the government.

 Messaoud Ould Boulkheir - PPA leader and former slave who climbed the political ladder and became the voice of the lower castes; he has the support of disenchanted black Africans and ethnic groups.


 Ahmed Ould Daddah - an economist and leader of the Rally of Democratic Forces party; he has been a candidate in many of the recent elections and is considered to be the most popular opposition figure in Mauritania.

The row soon deteriorated and in August 2008, Abdel Aziz lead a military coup against Abdallahi and seized power after 48 ministers from the ruling party resigned. Abdallahi remained under house arrest until December.

The international community condemned the putsch and called for an immediate return to civilian power. The EU suspended non-humanitarian aid.

Unwavering and determined not to cave in to mounting pressure, the junta formed a Higher State Council and said its coup came as a response to widespread corruption and mismanagement under the ousted president. 

The opposition rallied behind the deposed president and described the new regime as illegitimate.

In May 2009, Ould Abdel Aziz stepped down ahead of the June 6 polls in a move designed to show the ruling junta's resolve to stand aside as a civilian government takes shape, and declared himself a running candidate.

Negotiated settlement

However, observers of Mauritania's unpredictable political scene said at the time that what the country needs most is a negotiated settlement of its year old political crisis between the military government and opposition groups who had been staging near daily protests.

Brief Timeline of Events

 1960: The Islamic Republic of Mauritania gains independence from France.
 1976: Administration of the Western Sahara is given to Mauritania and Morocco.
 1980: Slavery is abolished. 1984: Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya becomes president in a bloodless military coup and is re-elected three times.
 1999: Diplomatic ties established with Israel.
 2003: Sid'Ahmed Taya survives a military coup but is deposed two years later.
 2007: The military hands over power to civilian rule.

In early June, a Senegal-sponsored round of talks between the Mauritanian military and opposition figures reached an agreement to postpone elections until July 18.

The agreement mainly calls for the formation of a 28-member transitional government and the formal resignation of Abdallahi 10 months after he was overthrown in a military coup.

According to the agreement, ministerial positions in the transitional government are to be shared between Ould Abdel Aziz's military government and the National Front for the Defence of Democracy, the opposition coalition.

Mauritanians will choose from nine candidates running for president.

But only three are seen as front-runners: Messaoud Ould Boulkheir of the People's Progressive Alliance (PPA) opposition group, Ahmed Ould Daddah of the Rally of Democratic Forces party, and Ould Abdel Aziz, the general who orchestrated two military coups in the last three years. 

Recent polls suggest that Ould Abdel Aziz is likely to win the election.

Alliances among the opposition proved flimsy and talks of a single opposition candidate soon evaporated paving the way for the general to enjoy a comfortable lead according to polls.

Growing demands

Whoever wins is likely to face growing demands to tackle a list of problems.

Half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, and a similar percentage of the population is illiterate.

Ould Abdel Aziz, right, enjoyed a lead in the polls on the eve of elections [AFP]
Despite its natural resources, iron and fish, and new discoveries of oil and gas reserves, mismanagement and corruption are rampant.

But although social issues largely dominated the debates, national security was also present. In their campaign tours, the candidates vowed to beef up the army and security forces to fend off terrorism threats.

In recent years, armed groups have carried out many attacks in the country.

Just last month, a US aid worker was killed in the capital Nouakchott. Al-Qaeda in North Africa claimed responsibility for the killing.

In 2008, 12 Mauritanian soldiers patrolling north of the capital were ambushed and shot dead by suspected al-Qaeda fighters. 

Now, Mauritanians are pinning hopes for an outcome that would restore democracy and reverse the fortunes of a nation ranked by the World Bank as one of the poorest in the world.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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