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Mauritania Voters Head to Polls - 2003-11-07

Voting has begun in Mauritania's presidential election, after a night of controversy.

While the shadows were still long in the early morning sun, voters in the center of Nouakchott took their places in line at one of the many schools that have been turned into polling stations.

Nearly 600 people are registered to vote here in this reasonably affluent neighborhood of the capital. The atmosphere was one of patience and calm.

Voter Mohamed Ould Mohktar expressed satisfaction at being able to exercise his democratic rights and make a selection of his own choosing from the six candidates who have put their names forward for the post of president.

Voters are required to produce their national identity card for verification against the national roll of voters. Once checked off of the list, they are given an envelope and seven pieces of paper - one for each of the six candidates and one blank for those who want to abstain.

Standing in a screened cubicle, voters select one of the brightly colored pieces of paper, put it in the envelope, and place it in the sealed envelope in a transparent box.

Electoral official Saddama Ould Abhour explains the transparent voting box signifies the transparency of the electoral process, giving all candidates the same chance of success.

"Everybody is beginning at the same place at the same time," he said. "Everybody has the same chance of success, and we will congratulate him, no matter what he is."

Still, the campaign of the main opposition candidate, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah, has already accused the ruling party of ballot box stuffing. Details were not immediately available.

Mr. Ould Haidallah was released from police custody late Thursday night, after being held for several hours on unspecified charges. His supporters demonstrated for his release outside the police building. Earlier in the week, the police said they confiscated weapons his party might have used to cause trouble, if he loses the election, but his campaign disputed the claim.

Mr. Ould Haidallah is a former president, who came to power in a coup d'etat, and was himself deposed in a coup in 1984 by the current leader Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya.

In another part of the capital, there is less faith in the electoral process. This is Sebkha, a typical quarter of Nouakchott, where homes do not have running water, and unemployment levels are high. Donkey carts merge with the old Mercedes cars that weave through the dusty streets.

Here, people eagerly talk of change, but they are worried about whether this election will bring it.

Local residents say families known to be aligned to the incumbent president are running some of the voting stations in the area. And at school number 11, which has nearly 2,000 registered voters, the first ballot wasn't cast until nearly 9:00 a.m., two hours after the official opening of the polling stations.

As the sun moves higher in the sky and the day gets hotter, voters settle in for what could be a long wait.