Former government minister Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi has won the presidential election in Mauritania, marking the end of a two-year process transitioning the country to democracy. Abdallahi took 11 of 13 regions, and about 53 percent of the vote in an election observers have said was free and fair. Naomi Schwarz reports from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.
Preliminary results gave the victory Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, an economist and former finance Minster, who has spent many years working in development outside the country. This will be the first time Mauritania has changed leadership through an election.
Abdallahi beat Ahmed Ould Daddah, longtime member of the opposition, by a narrow margin.
Local journalist Racine Sy says voting on Sunday went well.
"People are really satisfied," Sy said. "And in a certain way they are proud of the way everything has been set up and everything has been handled until the end."
Turnout was estimated at around 67 percent, or just slightly lower than the 70 percent turnout for the first round.
But shorter waits at polling stations led some observers to worry that turnout had dropped significantly. Sy says the shorter waits were just an indication of efficient voting procedures.
"Due to the fact Mauritanian people [were] accustomed to the way of voting and they took their time. And this time, it was faster because we just had two candidates," Sy said. "That is the reason why certain people think that the rate of participation would be lower. It was not the case."
Richard Reeve is an analyst with U.K.-based think tank Chatham House. He says before Abdallahi announced his candidacy in July, he was virtually unknown in Mauritania.
"Most of the time he was actually working for the government of Kuwait, administering their overseas development aid. He is an economic technocrat really," Reeve said. "Most of that time, he spent in Niger, which is a pretty good background for Mauritania. I think it has very similar development problems on the edge of the Sahara."
Abdallahi also served as a minister for two earlier Mauritanian presidents. His 18-member coalition included many members of the party of the former president, who was deposed in a popular 2005 military coup. The ruling junta has overseen the transition to democracy.
But Reeve says, Daddah, his opponent, also had backing from some former ruling party members.
Reeve says in terms of political and economic ideology, Abdallahi will be a return to the pre-coup status quo, without the authoritarian qualities of Mauritania's last president, Maaouiya Ould Taya.
He says many Mauritanians were not necessarily looking for a huge change.
"Although Ould Cheikh Abdallahi does not really stand for change in the same way former opposition parties do, he has a greater chance of success in moving Mauritania forward, in whatever direction that is, because he already has a majority in both houses of parliament of the legislature and because he has tacit support of the military," Reeve said.
David Hartwell, an analyst with Jane's Country Risk, agrees that, after 10 coups and coup attempts in the past five decades, what Mauritanians want most is stability.
"I do not think there was any great desire for a revolutionary type of candidate," Hartwell said. "I think there seemed to be a desire to have someone who was going to run the country in a more responsible way. And in Abdallahi, at the moment, they see a man who can deliver that."
In a debate before the election, Abdallahi said as president, his first priorities would include helping refugees home and easing relations between Mauritania's ethnically divided black and Moor population. He also promised to end slavery, which was banned in 1981, but has continued.
The new president is expected to take office on April 19. He is elected for five years, and the constitution now limits any president to two terms.