Mauritanians head to the polls this weekend to elect their next president, but the result is widely seen as a foregone conclusion.
Incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz appears set for an easy victory on June 21, as opposition parties have called for a boycott of the vote amid concerns about transparency.
Abdel Aziz faces four challengers, including opposition leaders Boidiel Ould Houmeid and Ibrahima Moctar Sarr; prominent anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid; and Lalla Mariem Bint Moulaye Idriss, a government worker and the only female candidate. None, however, appears positioned to make a significant impact at the ballot box.
“Given that the current regime of Mauritania is practically a totalitarian regime forcefully attempting to persuade the rest of the world … that it is a democracy, it is clear that the current president, who holds all practical powers in the country, will win the elections,” said Shaul Gabbay, an expert on politics in the Muslim world at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
“The opposition is helpless and [the boycott] is the only possible way to voice their position,” Gabbay told Al Jazeera.
Since gaining independence from France in 1960, Mauritania has sustained a series of military coups, along with a number of failed coup attempts. Abdel Aziz came to power after leading the 2008 overthrow of former President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the country’s first democratically elected leader.
The move, denounced by the African Union and the European Union, spurred opposition protesters to take to the streets.
In the summer of 2009, Abdel Aziz swept Mauritania’s presidential election, winning more than 50 percent of the vote amid claims of fraud from the opposition. One of his key priorities as president has been to battle “terrorism”, with him overseeing raids against regional al-Qaeda fighters.
In late 2012, the president was shot by a soldier outside the capital Nouakchott – an apparent accident after he failed to stop at a checkpoint. A year later, in December 2013, Mauritania’s ruling Union for the Republic Party won a majority in parliament after two rounds of legislative elections boycotted by much of the opposition.
Today, as the developing country of about 3.5 million people gears up to vote for the presidency, Abdel Aziz has publicly accused his opponents of “bringing the country to its knees”. Urging everyone to defy the boycott and vote, he has touted his achievements in security and economic growth, which exceeded six percent in 2013.
But opposition parties maintain there are serious concerns over how the election is being organised, suggesting the outcome has essentially been predetermined.
“Main opposition [parties] question the impartiality of the country’s constitutional commission, which they claim is stacked with Aziz’s supporters,” said Raymond Gilpin, academic dean at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. “The opposition do not believe they would be afforded a fair chance given the perceived opaqueness in legal and procedural arrangements.”
In addition, Gilpin told Al Jazeera, many view Abdel Aziz as a “friend of the West” and believe external parties, who want to ensure a continuance of relative stability in the region, could influence the outcome.
Amid this backdrop, voter participation will be a key issue in Saturday’s vote, said Néjib Ayachi, president of the non-profit Maghreb Center research organisation.
“The main consequence will be that the incumbent won’t face any serious challenge, and most likely will be re-elected relatively easily,” Ayachi told Al Jazeera. “As to fairness and transparency in the poll, the incumbent, an army general allied with the local rentier elite, is not known for his democratic credentials, or for having instituted in Mauritania the much-needed transparent and accountable governance system based on the rule of law – and he seems to have monopolised the political arena and the media.”
Also on voters’ minds, as they head to the polls this weekend, will be the issue of slavery, which has continued in Mauritania for decades despite repeated pledges to eradicate the practise. Mauritania is believed to have the highest proportion of people in slavery in the world – particularly in the form of chattel slavery, in which masters exercise total ownership over both adults and children, according to the international anti-slavery Walk Free Foundation.
The candidacy of Abeid, a well-known activist who is himself a descendant of slaves, puts the issue front and centre once again.
“I will free the slaves and bring them with me to the presidential palace,” Abeid has vowed, according to a report from Asharq al-Awsat. The comment reportedly prompted a sharp rebuke from Abdel Aziz’s campaign manager, who accused Abeid of attempting to “exploit slavery in order to win votes of former slaves and seize power … There is no slavery in my society.”
Jessica Watts, a spokesperson for Walk Free, said the emergence of slavery as a campaign issue is a positive sign for Mauritania, where the practise has become “pretty much an accepted social norm”.
“While Mauritania has passed anti-slavery legislation, lack of law enforcement remains a fundamental issue,” Watts told Al Jazeera. “We hope the newly elected government will take active steps to enforce this legislation.”
Meanwhile, as residents prepare to cast their ballots on Saturday, the country faces an uphill battle towards true democracy, experts say. As with last year’s parliamentary elections, Gilpin noted, the presidential vote will proceed despite the boycott, casting a “dark shadow” over the results.
“Winning the elections could result in an uneasy calm, but would not secure Aziz’s legitimacy,” he said.