NOUAKCHOTT - Mauritanian voters went to the polls Saturday in the country’s first election without an incumbent presidential candidate since the 2008 coup.
Polling stations closed at 7 p.m. across the Sahara Desert nation, and preliminary results are expected late in the evening.
Though voters were mobilized for these elections, seen as significant in the country’s democratic history, many are wary that the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), which earlier this year refused appeals to employ foreign observers, may not hold fair elections.
Polling stations surveyed
American embassy staff were among those in Nouakchott surveying polling stations across the capital.
“We’ve got 10 teams who have been out ever since the polls opened at 7 this morning, doing observations in various polling stations throughout the city,” U.S. Ambassador to Mauritania Michael Dodman told VOA.
“We’ll wait and see what the results are, we’ll wait and see what the experts … have to say. And we just hope that it all moves forward peacefully, quickly, and that this transfer of power really is a positive step for Mauritanian democracy,” he added.
Along with American embassy staff, local observers went to polling stations across the capital Saturday.
Local lawyer Fatimata M’Baye told VOA that she noticed some irregularities, namely that some voters were turned away and were told they needed to provide their voter registration number and not just an identification. M’Baye says that these numbers are only available online, and some people were unable to retrieve them in time to vote.
“I think these are questions that should have been addressed before election day,” M’Baye said, adding that she thinks the issue is more negligence by the CENI as opposed to obstruction.
“I think that in the future, the CENI needs to be much better prepared to allow the Mauritanian people to vote in peace,” she said.
Lacking faith in poll
According to a Gallup poll, 64% of Mauritanians do not have faith in the honesty of the elections.
When asked who they believe will win the election, many voters VOA spoke with in Nouakchott preceded their answer with “If the state doesn’t cheat. ..."
President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down, as is mandated by the constitution, after his two five-year terms. His ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party has put forth former Defense Minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani as its candidate.
Opposition candidates say that Ghazouani would not affect any change from the last administration -- change they say is desperately needed.
“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,” Sidi Mohammed Ould Boubacar, a former prime minister and leading opposition candidate supported by the Tewassoul party, told VOA.
Boubacar is one of five opposition candidates running to replace the UPR. Other candidates include well-known anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, who has promised a national inquiry into the country’s cases of modern slavery.
The country’s last elections in 2014 were heavily criticized for being unfair and were boycotted by many opposition parties. Then-incumbent President Aziz won by 84%.
Mauritania has had five military coups since it gained independence from France in 1960.