x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Mauritania stages first post-coup election

The election intends to show that the country is ready to rejoin the international community after a much-criticised military coup.

NOUAKCHOTT // Mauritanians hurried to the polls today in an election meant to signal to donors and investors the country is ready to rejoin the international community after a much-criticised military coup last August. Queues formed outside voting booths in the capital Nouakchott, with voters keen to participate in elections that were originally scheduled for June 6, but delayed in order to end an opposition boycott that would have damaged the credibility of the winner.

"Mauritanians appear to be moving quickly, and happy to vote," said Mohamed Hussein, member of a civil society group observing the election. Unconfirmed reports of a clash between police and gunmen, in the same area in which armed men killed an American aid worker last month, circulated in Nouakchott overnight, but today began peacefully. "Everything is going well so far. We have visited a dozen polling stations and all the material is in place," he said.

Junta leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is favourite to win the vote in the Sahara desert Islamic state, analysts say, but there are alternatives in political heavyweight Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who mounted a coup in 2005, and veteran opposition figure Ahmed Ould Daddah. Mr Abdel Aziz's promises of food and fuel price cuts are likely to endear him to Mauritanians, 40 per cent of whom live under the poverty line.

"The most likely scenario is for Aziz to become leader, but this time through the ballot box," said Global Insight analyst Kissy Agyeman-Togobo. International donors such as the European Union and United States halted aid programmes in protest at the coup, but free, transparent elections would be a step towards restarting co-operation. They would also set a positive example to the rest of the region, where military coups and constitutional crises have become a feature of politics in the past year.

"This crisis has lasted almost a year, and we're impatient to vote now. It's the only way of getting out of this crisis and returning to normality," said Oumar Dicko, who runs an internet cafe in the capital. Mr Abdel Aziz made combating terrorism a cornerstone of his justification for seizing power, accusing the president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi of slackening off on al Qa'eda. Mauritania is an ally of the West in the fight against the group, though the international marginalisation that began after the August coup intensified when it shut the Israeli embassy in March in protest at the Jewish state's invasion of Gaza.

Until then, Mauritania had been one of only three Arab countries to have full diplomatic relations with Israel. "We are likely to see Aziz attempting to restore ties with traditional donors," Mr Agyeman-Togobo said. "But this will require something of a balancing act for the man who has adopted a more radicalised stance towards Israel, which could see relations with US ally, Egypt, and other Western powers compromised."

Neither the European Union nor United Nations have sent observers, but there are more than 200 overseeing the election from organisations including the African Union ? which lifted sanctions this month ? and the Arab League. *Reuters