Voters in Mauritania are casting ballots in legislative, regional and local elections that will test President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s record before next year’s presidential vote.
Polls opened at 07:00 GMT on Saturday in the capital, Nouakchott, but several voters were sent to different polling stations due to last minute changes. Voting ends at 19:00 GMT.
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The opposition boycotted the last polls in 2013 but a record 98 parties are taking part this time, with close to 5,000 people running for the National Assembly alone.
The vote, which is monitored by African Union observers, is unfolding calmly and amid tight security.
Military personnel cast their ballots Friday to free themselves up to provide security in the vast and arid West African state with a registered electorate of some 1.4 million.
Aziz hailed the “peaceful and democratic nature” of the ballot after casting his vote but Mohamed Ould Moloud, a leading opposition figure, deplored logistical snags and hinted the outcome could be flawed.
“There are voters who have been misdirected and don’t know where to vote,” he said, adding that there were “serious signs of possible fraud”.
Veteran opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah, who heads the Gathering for Democracy (RFD), has urged voters to make “the necessary leap to get rid of dictatorship and generalised bankruptcy”.
The ruling Union for the Republic is campaigning largely on changes it made in the 2017 constitution, abolishing the Senate and bringing in a new national anthem and flag. Voters endorsed the controversial measures in a referendum, while the opposition warned they would give the president more power.
Final results of Saturday’s election could be released as early as Monday. Potential runoff elections would take place on September 15.
“I voted for people I support in different parties, including some from the ruling party and others in the opposition,” a woman, who identified herself as Fatimatou, told AFP news agency.
Aziz, 61, who came to power in a coup in 2008, won elections in 2009 and again in 2014 for a second five-year term.
He has been frequently accused by opposition figures and NGOs of rights abuses, including the arrest of a former senator and the “secretive” detention of a blogger.
Aziz says he will not seek a third mandate, which would be against the Constitution, but statements by ministers and supporters have allowed suspicions to flourish.
The president has criticised opposition leaders as “villains” and “troublemakers”.
He has described some as “dangerous Islamists, racist extremists and the leftovers of former regimes which brought the country to its knees”.
Mauritania, like other nations in the region, faces a growing threat from armed groups as well as the day-to-day challenge of underdevelopment.