Mauritanians vote in presidential election with incumbent tipped to winSat, 29 Jun 2024 12:06:12 GMT

Mauritanians began voting Saturday to decide whether to re-elect President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani as head of the desert country, an oasis of peace in Africa’s volatile Sahel region. Around 1.9 million registered voters are set to choose between seven candidates vying to lead the sprawling nation, which has largely withstood the tide of jihadism in the region and is set to become a gas producer. An AFP journalist saw voters queuing up at two polling stations at a school in the heart of the capital Nouakchott before polling began at 0700 GMT. Men and women formed separate lines in the deeply conservative Islamic nation.”I am here to fulfil my civic duty to complete the democratic process that began some decades back,” Mohamed Salem M’Seika, a 50-year-old voter, said.Kertouma Baba, 26, said he wanted “progress in education and opportunities for the youth”.Polling is set to close at 1900 GMT, and the first results are expected on Saturday evening. Official results are set to be announced on Sunday or Monday.A 2019 election brought Ghazouani to power and marked the first transition between two elected presidents since independence from France in 1960 and a series of coups from 1978 to 2008.Former general Ghazouani is the overwhelming favourite to win a second term, with observers considering a first-round victory possible — given opposition divisions and the resources of the president’s camp.A possible second-round vote would take place on July 14.Campaigning was relatively peaceful, except for some scuffles on Monday in the northern town of Nouadhibou, when “one candidate’s supporters” attacked backers of another candidate, the interior ministry said. Ghazouani, a former security boss and army chief, is widely regarded as the mastermind behind the country’s relative security.While the Sahel has in recent years seen a string of military coups and escalating jihadism, particularly in Mali, Mauritania has not seen an attack since 2011.- ‘Democratic spirit’  -Throughout the campaign, Ghazouani has promised his supporters “a resounding first-round victory”.Posters of his face accompanied by the slogan “the safe choice” overshadow those of his political opponents both in Nouakchott and across the country. The president cast his vote in Nouakchott on Saturday morning.”I congratulate the Mauritanians for their high level of consciousness and their democratic spirit,” he told reporters outside the polling station.He welcomed a “climate of peace and tranquillity” during the election day.After a first term hit by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Ghazouani has made fighting poverty and supporting young people priority issues.Over 70 percent of Mauritania’s population is under 35, with young people increasingly drawn to the prospect of a better future in Europe or the United States.With a second mandate, the incumbent says he hopes to make more reforms thanks to a favourable economic outlook.Growth should average 4.9 percent (3.1 percent per capita) for the period 2024-2026, according to the World Bank, spurred by the launch of gas production in the second half of this year. Inflation has fallen from a peak of 9.5 percent in 2022 to five percent in 2023, and should continue to drop to 2.5 percent in 2024.- ‘One-sided election’ -The president’s two main rivals are human rights activist Biram Dah Abeid, runner-up in the last two presidential elections, and the leader of the Islamist Tewassoul party, Hamadi Ould Sid’ El Moctar.Both vow radical change, “an end to mismanagement and corruption”, and far-reaching education and justice reform. They have also warned of fraud after denouncing a “one-sided election” and accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) of “doing nothing to ensure that it runs smoothly”.The two candidates both cast their votes Saturday morning. Dah Abeid called on his supporters to “fight fraud by all legal means”.The opposition strongly contested the legislative elections a year ago, which were won by Ghazouani’s party. The African Union has sent a team of 27 short-term observers, while the European Union has sent three election experts.The Mauritanian government has set up a national election monitoring body, which the opposition has denounced as a tool for manipulating the ballot.