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Mauritanian Candidates Court Second-Round Votes

For the first time in their history, Mauritanians are preparing for a second round of presidential polls. Finalists Sidi Ould Sheik Abdellahi and Ahmed Ould Daddah have less than two weeks to get the backing of the 17 candidates they defeated in elections last Sunday. The runoff is necessary, because no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote. Kari Barber reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

Seeking to appeal to black voters, who make up a large portion of the population, former government minister Abdellahi vowed to eradicate slavery in Mauritania, which still takes place, despite existing laws.

Abdellahi also promised to help Mauritanian refugees living in Senegal to return home. Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians fled during the 1980s following communal violence.

Abdellahi's rival in the election, Ould Daddah, a long-time opposition leader, says in the first round people voted based on personal preferences.

Now, he says, he hopes they will vote based on issues.

He called for all parties and all candidates to vote for him, promising a change from the government of toppled leader Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya.

Analyst Richard Reeve, with London-based Chatham House, says Abdellahi's service under Ould Taya may be a stumbling block in his path to the presidency.

"For the two candidates it is a case of coalition building for the second round," he explained. "Although Ahmed Ould Daddah actually came in second in the first round, he appears to have a better chance of building a majority coalition for the second round, because of the many parties which were in opposition to the former regime of Ould Taya."

Reeve says there are many similarities between the two candidates.

Both are ethnic white Moors in their sixties. Both were economists who worked at international financial institutions. And both served as ministers under independence President Moctar Ould Daddah.

Abdellahi has contacted third-place candidate Zeine Ould Zeidane and has called for the support of fourth-place finisher Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a descendant of former slaves.

Ould Boulkheir says his party is debating which candidate they will support.

Ould Boulkheir says he is concerned that in the first round many people voted for the candidate with the most money, or the one who shared their same race or ethnicity. He says this could be detrimental to the nation's budding democracy.

The second round of voting is to be held on March 25.