NOUAKCHOTT - Six presidential hopefuls in Mauritania ended their campaigns on Thursday with hourslong rallies throughout the capital of Nouakchott.

For the first time since a 2008 coup, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will not be up for re-election, leaving the polls wide open and voters newly energized for change.

Among the opposition candidates are Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar of Tawassoul, the country’s main opposition party. Boubacar previously served the country as prime minister from 2005 to 2007.

Though he is more established in politics than the other opposition candidates, Boubacar is running on the platform of change, and has said that electing the ruling party’s candidate would not affect necessary change in the country.

“I think there needs to be a true changeover, because the state today of my country is catastrophic. The economic situation is extremely serious, as are our societal problems,” Boubacar told VOA.

Another notable opposition candidate is Biram Dah Abeid, an independent politician running on an anti-slavery problem. Mauritania has consistently ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for modern slavery, a problem that Abeid has combatted in his work outside of politics.

Abeid has gained popularity among poorer and rural communities, and he says it’s because despite his international travels, he has always been committed to the betterment of Mauritania.

“I’ve devoted my life to the Mauritanian people, to fighting slavery, and to fighting racial discrimination,” Abeid told VOA.

Biram Dah Abeid is running on an anti-slavery platform and plans to call for a national inquiry into human trafficking if elected president (Photo: E. Sarai)

But Aziz’s ruling party has named its former defense minister, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the party’s successor.

Ghazouani has promised to transform national industries to create more jobs around the country’s natural resources. He has also promised that he would regularly meet with members of opposition parties represented in parliament if elected president.

Many voters, particularly young voters, have expressed doubts over the transparency of the election, especially given the current government’s support of Ghazouani.

“I doubt it,” Bachirou Malick Ba, a university student, said when asked whether he had faith in the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (CENI) willingness to hold free and fair elections.

“I don’t know what else to say, I just doubt it,” he said.

Tents for supporters of ruling party candidate Ghazouani line the streets of Nouakchott (Photo: E. Sarai)

Additionally, some have said that Ghazouani’s resources are notably more than other candidates, given his backing by the current government. Posters and billboards bearing Ghazouani’s face are more numerous than those of any other candidate and can be seen throughout the capital city.

“When you have a candidate running against a candidate of the ruling party, notably before it was Abdul Aziz two times and now it is Ghazouani, they have all of the means of the state, first of all money,” Gourmo Lo, a professor of law in Nouakchott, told VOA.

“So the state’s administration, are at the service of the candidate presented by the ruling party,” he said.

But Lo is confident that voters are adequately mobilized to support opposition candidates enough to challenge the ruling party.

“This year we have decided to fight the ruling party, from polling station to polling station. We won’t let a single polling station fall into their hands,” Lo said.

Supporters of opposition candidate Mohamed Ould Mouloud sit on their car for a better view of his final campaign rally. (Photo: E. Sarai)

Some voters are hoping at least for Saturday’s election to be close enough to spark a run-off election, which would likely be held July 6.

“The opposition needs to do well enough that we will have to hold a second round of elections,” Eby Sidi Ebbe Emheimed, a university student and Boubacar supporter, told VOA.

Among the issues facing Mauritania today is unemployment. Almost 60% of the population is under the age of 25, according to the CIA World Factbook, leaving a majority of the population concerned about their education and future job opportunities.

As the sun sets, campaign volunteers prepare to engage visitors about opposition candidate Kane Hamidou Baba (Photo: E. Sarai)

For weeks, all six candidates have been traveling around the country, focusing on the capital city of Nouakchott, where a large portion of the country’s population is centered. Nearly three-fourths of Mauritania is desert or semi-desert land.

Outgoing President Aziz came to power in a coup in 2008, just a year after the country’s first fair and free elections.

Aziz was then democratically elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2014. He is stepping down after the end of his second five-year term, as is mandated by the country’s constitution.