Mauritania elections: the hard choice

Will the upcoming elections resolve Mauritania’s political crises?

Unresolved political tension over the 2008 coup threatens the upcoming elections in Mauritania [AP]

The Mauritanian legislative and municipal elections are being held at a moment of national disunity. A number of challenges have caused the vote to be postponed several times in the past. Finally the government has decided to go ahead with it, despite a vote boycott by some of the major opposition parties. The results could be ominous to national unity.

Mauritania is one of the least developed nations in the Sahel region of AfricaIt has not yet emerged from years of political instability after a series of military coups and failed democratic processes, the result of which is extreme polarization within the political class.

Hundreds of small parties are crowding the arena and vying for dominance. None of them has a clear programme or a distinct ideology. They keep switching sides between the ruling party and the main opposition bloc, thereby creating unstable and unreliable alliances.

Moreover, there is a deep and long standing mistrust between the ruling party, the Union for the Republic (UPR) and the hardline opposition party, Coordination of the Democratic Opposition (COD). In 2009 the two sides engaged in an unsuccessful political dialogue in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, following the 2008 military coup which led to the ousting of a democratically elected president. 

Within the present Mauritanian context, being what it is, one may wonder how a legislative and municipal election boycotted by a big part of the political class will help resolve the nation’s crises.

Initially the opposition parties categorically rejected the coup and demanded the return of the ousted president. The military, however, soon managed to choreograph a tactical deal whereby new presidential elections were held. The vote results were expectedly in favour of the head of the army who then reinstated himself, this time as a civilian president.

Subsequent attempts to hold national dialogue between various political formations failed, causing a long delay of the legislative and municipal elections. Each side has blamed the above failures on the other, further widening the gap between them. The two blocs seem, up to now, unable or unwilling to get over their rivalry, hence the extreme difficulty to reach an agreement on the ways and means to organize and conduct the elections.

This sharp polarization and the mutual rejection were compounded by an inherent fragility and an obvious lack of cohesion within each party or bloc. There’s a type of “political nomadism” where individual and group loyalties can never be taken for granted, and where no coalitions are immune against sudden disintegration. It’s a scene of shifting sands where constituencies cease to matter and citizens lose their respect for elected representatives.

This anarchical restlessness and the pervasive unfriendly mood, that goes with it, are not congenial to a constructive, consensual political enterprise. The ruling party and the president have adopted a confrontational approach of zero concessions. So there is simply no effort on their part to undertake any significant reconciliatory steps in order to resolve the crisis.

And there’s the novel factor of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood as a rising political force. The Tawassul party of the Muslim Brotherhood has gained a bit of momentum of late and it is not boycotting the vote. Its participation could be of use to the government, as it gives a level of legitimacy to the electoral process.

In addition to the inadequate socio-political atmosphere, the country is going through tremendous economic difficulties. First, Mauritania, like many other countries, has been affected by the recent international economic crisis. Foreign investments and tourism have decreased. Poverty rates are among the highest in the region. Basic commodity prices continue to rise. Unemployment and illiteracy take a harsh toll on the underprivileged strata of society.

In the eyes of many Mauritanians, this shouldn’t happen, in view of the improving national revenues from the exports of fish, oil, iron and other minerals. Many ascribe the economic crisis to poor management and to a failure to eradicate corruption, despite the numerous measures taken by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in that respect.

Regionally the country’s security is under threat more than at any time before, due to the fallouts of the conflict in northern Mali. Al-Qaeda continues to pose a real menace as well, as it operates close to Mauritanian borders in northern Mali and western Algeria.

Within the present Mauritanian context, being what it is, one may wonder how a legislative and municipal election boycotted by a big part of the political class will help resolve the nation’s crises. By the best forecast, the ruling party is likely to win the biggest number of seats.

The presidential election is only a year away, giving more significance to the results of the current legislative vote. If no challenger to the ruling party rises to power now, then many will see the exercise as another mockery of democracy. It will mean a continuation and a solidification of the status quo.

Many Mauritanians are watching this electoral exercise with puzzlement. On the one hand, the government showcases the vote as an indication that the crisis is over and that things are moving ahead in the right direction. On the other hand, the opposition considers it an illegal process because it lacks general consensus and thus constitutes a further roadblock on the path of national reconciliation.

The people are caught in the middle between the hard choices of total stalemate and uncertain change. Yet one may not be totally wrong saying that most Mauritanians may prefer a status quo rather than a crippling deadlock or a hazardous political crisis conducive to anarchy and chaos.

Mouhamed Lemine El Kettab is a lecturer in Nouakchott University, the chairman of the Club of the Mauritanian Intellectuals for Democracy and Development and the chairman of the Mauritanian branch of the Arab Organization for Human Rights.