DAKAR— Voters in Mauritania head to the polls Saturday to vote in presidential elections, widely expected to return President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to office. But the opposition remains hopeful.
Mauritanians have a choice of five presidential candidates, including incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
His two main challengers are a prominent anti-slavery activist and the country's second-ever female presidential candidate, both running as independents.
Boydiel Ould Houmied, a member of a loyalist-backed party of former president Maawiya Ould Taya, and Ibrahim Moctar Sarr, a Black African who won five percent of the vote in the 2009 election, are also contenders.
The country's leading opposition coalition is boycotting the poll, claiming a lack of transparency and vote-rigging.
Aziz, a former army general who took power during a 2008 military coup, was officially elected in 2009. He is running on the platform that Mauritania is a better place today than it was before he took office.
He said the country was more safe today than five years ago, there were no more terrorist cells and there are no political prisoners, "so this means that we have democracy."
Aziz is considered by many Western countries to be a key ally in the fight against al-Qaida-linked terrorists in the region. He has also claimed responsibility for the country's recent economic growth.
But one of Aziz's top rivals, Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, said that it is time for a change, particularly when it comes to addressing Mauritania's ongoing problem of modern-day slavery. As a self-proscribed "defender of human rights," Abeid has promised to protect and promote the poor and the marginalized.
He said the election was a battle between two ideologies: between that of human rights, equality and freedom, and that of the real Islam.
"We are fighting against those ideologies that have bullied people into a lifestyle of slavery and against those who make a fortune on human exploitation," he said
Mauritania has repeatedly tried to abolish slavery, most recently banning it in 2007. However, as many as 600,000 people, mostly of Black African descent, are still estimated to be enslaved by the lighter skinned Arab Moors.
The sole female candidate, Lalla Maryem Mint Moulaye Idriss, is promising to make women and children a priority while improving the country's agriculture and fishing sectors. She has become a favorite with many female voters.
Aissatou Salam, a resident of Nouakchott, says she believes Mauritania could use a female leader. She says women represent 52 percent of the population and it is time for them to take power.
Some voters, such as Ahmed Beik Ould Maouloud, said they were only interested in positive change and wanted the winning candidate to take note.
He said, "we expect to be able to find jobs and see a big improvement in our economy."
If no one candidate wins 50 percent of the vote on Saturday, runoff elections are scheduled to take place on July 5.
(Mohamed Beddy Horma contributed to this report from Nouakchott.)