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Mauritanian Political Landscape Changed after Presidential Election

Mauritania's National Assembly President Messaoud Ould Boulkheir did not win the recent presidential election, but he did not exactly lose either. As the new de-facto leader of the opposition, he will have a tough time luring support away from the former general who led a coup against the country's first freely elected leader and went on to win the recent presidential election.

Boulkheir garnered more votes than long-time opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah, who was competing in his last presidential race. Under Mauritanian electoral law, Daddah will be too old to run in the next election.

But with just over 16 percent of the vote, Boulkheir was far behind former general Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who won more than 50 percent of the vote in a field of nine candidates, making a second round unnecessary. The two opposition leaders had vowed to support each other if the vote had gone to a second round. While the opposition claimed the election was fraudulent, Mauritania's Constitutional Council validated the results, and observers from the African Union and the Arab League say the vote was fair.

Boulkheir will have a tough challenge if he hopes to lead the opposition to victory in the next presidential election.

Boulkheir gained respect from the international community for his steadfast opposition to last August's coup and his role in negotiating the Dakar accord that paved the way for the election. During the campaign, he pledged to combat voter fraud in a spirit of non-violence and democracy.

"We will go through democratic channels and protest democratically. If we encounter violence, we are ready to suffer that violence," he says. "We are ready to die for our convictions."

Born to slave parents, the 66-year-old politician rose through the ranks of civil service to become head of his party, president of the National Assembly and a crusader in the fight to end slavery in Mauritania. His slave mother was almost beaten to death by her master, before French authorities intervened and helped the family escape to freedom.

Though slavery was abolished in 1980, many say it is still practiced in the more traditional, far-flung regions of the country. Boulkheir had vowed that, if elected, he would bring existing slave holders to justice.

Though he had finished fourth in two previous presidential elections, opposition to the coup expanded his traditional support base from his fellow Haratines, or former slaves, to the country's white Arab and black African populations, making him a major contender in this race.

On the last day of campaigning, Boulkheir held a large rally in Nouakchott, the capital, bringing together his long-time supporters and those who had recently joined his camp.

This supporter said Boulkheir could be the president of all Mauritanians, the president who could bring progress to the country. "He's the Mauritanian Obama," she said, referring to the U.S. president. She said Boulkheir was the candidate of change, peace and national unity.

So, why didn't Boulkheir do better in the election?

Political analyst Mohamed Vall Ould Oumer says that, in reaching out to broaden his base, Boulkheir lost his traditional supporters, the more than half a million former slaves who make up one fifth of the country's population.

Oumer says that Boulkheir ignored everyday concerns like food prices, wastefulness and the redistribution of wealth. Oumer says that, in response to Abdel Aziz' claim that he was the "President of the Poor," Boulkheir said he was the president of the rich and the poor. That was a trap, Oumer says, and Messoud fell into it.

Oumer says the only card Boulkheir has left to play is the threat he could pose in the next presidential election by rebuilding his base and championing democratic change.