What’s at stake in Mauritania’s presidential election?

After decades of coups and military rule, the country’s young democracy will be tested in the June 29 vote.

A man cast his vote at a poling station on June 22, 2019 in Nouakchott during the Mauritania''s presidential election. Mauritanians voted today for a new president
A man cast his vote at a polling station on June 22, 2019 in Nouakchott during Mauritania's last presidential election [Sia Kambou/AFP]

Voters will head to polling booths across Mauritania on June 29, in elections set to be a litmus test for the West African country’s young and fragile democracy.

A vast but sparsely populated desert country with some 4.5 million people, Mauritania has long been beset by coups and military rule. The country has been under military dictatorship for nearly all of its 64 years since gaining independence from France in 1960. Its first peaceful power transfer came in 2019, when then-incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz chose not to run for a third term.

The country is surrounded by neighbours battling armed violence involving a range of groups, and analysts say Mauritania faces the risk of that lack of security spilling over into its territory.

Mauritania also has a legacy of racial discrimination that is still alive: Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981, and crackdowns on activists from the Black Mauritanian population have led to tensions in recent months. Racial disparities also show up in access to education, health and land.

Some two million people are eligible to vote on Saturday. Here’s all you need to know about the coming polls:

Who is running?

There are seven candidates for the presidency.

  • President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani – Representing the ruling El Insaf or Equity Party, experts say the 67-year-old incumbent president is the favourite to win the elections. Ghazouani will seek to clinch a second and final five-year term after leading the country’s first democratic transition since 2019. The president was a former military man. He served as former army chief under his predecessor, Aziz, who hand-picked him for the top job. In 2019, he won 52 percent of the vote in a competitive and largely peaceful election.
  • Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid  – The 59-year-old parliament member is running under the banner of the Refoundation for a Global Action alliance (RAG). He came second with 19 percent of the votes in 2019. The anti-slavery activist is well-known for speaking up for Afro-Mauritanians who make up a majority of the population, but who have historically faced discrimination. The activist has been jailed several times under previous governments for his outspokenness and campaigns, under his non-profit Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA-Mauritania).
  • Outouma Antoine Souleimane Soumare – An independent candidate, the neurosurgeon has campaigned on social justice, promising to change the constitution so it can more equally represent all social backgrounds, and pledging to provide basic amenities, especially to communities outside the capital, Nouakchott. Soumare is seen as a more moderate alternative to Abeid by many.

Other candidates include:

  • Hamadi Sidi Mokhtar Mohamed Abdi of the conservative Tawassoul Party, the main opposition with the largest number of parliament seats after El Insaf. Abdi is pushing for further entrenchment of Islamic law in the Muslim-majority country.
  • Mamadou Bocar Ba of the Alliance for Justice and Democracy movement that represents mostly Black Mauritanians.
  • El Id Mohameden M’Bareck of the Republican Front for Unity and Democracy (FRUD) or Hope Mauritania coalition.
  • Mohamed Lemine El Mourteji El Wafi, who is running for the second time as an independent candidate.

What are the key issues?

  • Unemployment: Mauritanians under the age of 25 make up 60 percent of the population. A combination of limited job opportunities and a dearth of needed skills means youth unemployment is at 23 percent, with thousands unable to find jobs.
  • Poverty: Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world and more than half of the population lives in poverty, most of them children. Those conditions have increasingly pushed young people to take deadly journeys on rickety boats, hoping to reach Europe. Some have also taken to flying to South American countries which require no visas, and then trekking through the dangerous Darien Gap to try to reach the United States. In March, the EU signed a multibillion-dollar deal with Nouakchott to boost border policing and reduce migrant arrivals.
  • Amenities: Improving access to basic amenities like electricity and water is also a key demand of many voters. More than half of the country did not have access to electricity in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.
  • But also pressing is the insecurity that’s raging just across the eastern border with Mali and that threatens to spill over into an otherwise stable Mauritania. Incumbent Ghazouani on the campaign trail has argued that the country needs his steady leadership to avoid the prospect of extremism returning as a serious threat: Mauritania had successfully clamped down on armed groups in 2011.
  • “We’ve not seen insecurity in Mauritania itself but we see that there’s pressure on that border, we’ve seen activities there – whether attacks or those extremist groups trying to infiltrate border communities,” said Dan Eizenga, a West Africa researcher at the US-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Tensions are simmering between Bamako and Nouakchott as well, the researcher said, as Mauritania has accused Malian troops of killing its citizens in its pursuit of armed groups.
  • Refugees: People fleeing the violence in Mali continue to push into the country. So far, more than 70,000 refugees are in or around the Mbera camp in the country’s southeast, and another 11,000 are spread across Nouakchott and the commercial coastal city of Nouadhibou.

What’s Ghazouani’s legacy?

The incumbent president’s supporters claim he has significantly distanced the government from the military, and has built a more inclusive government than his predecessors. Ghazouani appointed Prime Minister Mohamed Ould Bilal, who is Black, and a few other top cabinet members from historically disadvantaged non-Arab communities like Afro-Mauritanians.

His government has taken on his former boss, Ould Abdel Aziz, in corruption trials. Abdel Aziz was convicted of illicit enrichment and money laundering in December and is now serving a five-year sentence.

But the president has also faced a backlash over mounting rights abuses, especially targeted at government critics and opposition politicians. His ties to the military have also meant that the institution is still influential in policymaking.

“Ghazouani represents the old guard, for a lot of people, and for those who were looking for complete change, they just haven’t seen that,” Eizenga said. “Many people are saying ‘Oh those military people, they don’t like to leave power,’ and that’s because he is still very much seen as being part of the military.”

Afro-Mauritanians who mostly speak Fula, Soninke and Wolof, have also criticised the president for a 2022 policy that mandated the use of the Arabic language in primary schools. The policy introduced local languages at the primary level for the first time, but it also specified that Arabic be taught to non-Arab children, a move many saw as an imposition. Currently, Arabic is the official language, and French is widely spoken.

In 2023, the death of an Afro-Mauritanian man, Oumar Diop, and a Black activist, Soufi Ould Cheine, in police custody led to protests. Those demonstrations were met with violent force from the police.

Corruption, too, remains a challenge. Critics say while Ghazouani prosecuted his predecessor, he has largely used new anticorruption laws and institutions to target opposition and critics.

Is the National elections commission (CENI) trusted?

After years of political upheavals, the elections commission was reformed in 2022, under Ghazouani’s government. However, in legislative elections to the 176-member National Assembly held in May 2023, many analysts alleged irregularities in the vote, and the opposition claimed there was “massive fraud”.

The ruling El Insaf won a landslide, clinching 107 seats, while Tawassoul, the major opposition, won 11 seats. The African Union deemed the vote credible.

The US, in a statement on Thursday, revealed that it provided financial aid to the CENI to help strengthen its processes. US officials, alongside delegates from the AU, are also expected to observe the elections in polling booths throughout the country.

What’s next?

Ghazouani is billed to clinch the majority vote. But unlike 2019, mounting competition from his three closest political rivals could see him come short of taking home a clear 50 percent share, some analysts say.

If that happens, the country will again vote in a second round on July 14.

“That’s not very likely but I still don’t think we can completely rule it out,” Eizenga said.

Violence has not been a major issue in past elections – although experts say that could be because there was never a real belief that opposition members could have any real chance at winning the ballot. Still, the elections on Saturday are expected to be largely peaceful.

Because of its political history, the fact that campaigns are being held and that people are prepared to vote is in itself a win for Mauritania, analysts say, as the country’s institutions strengthen ahead of elections in 2029 when Ghazouani – if he is in office – would be ineligible to run, necessitating a power transfer.

Source: Al Jazeera