Mauritania holds elections despite opposition boycott
Nouakchott: Mauritanians voted on Saturday in nationwide elections overshadowed by a widespread boycott of opposition parties, with all eyes on the performance of an Islamist party allowed to take part for the first time.
The mainly-Muslim republic, a former French colony on the west coast of the Sahara desert, is seen as strategically important in the fight against al Qaeda-linked groups within its own borders, as well in neighbouring Mali and across Africa`s Sahel region.
"I think these elections today are a victory for democracy in my country," President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said after visiting his local polling station in Nouakchott.
Around a third of Mauritania`s 3.4 million people are eligible to vote in the first parliamentary and local polls since 2006, a test of strength for Abdel Aziz five years after he came to power in a coup and four years after he won a widely contested presidential vote.
His Union for the Republic (UPR) is expected to retain power but opinion is divided over whether the main Islamist party Tewassoul, only legalised in 2007, will provide a serious challenge to the favourites sink back into obscurity following the election.
Some 1,500 candidates from 74 parties representing the administration and the so-called "moderate" opposition are registered to vie for 147 seats in parliament and the leadership of 218 local councils dotted across the shifting sands of the vast nation.
The process of voting appeared more complicated and arduous than had been expected and long queues began to build up outside polling stations in the capital.
Voters, most of whom are illiterate, faced the difficult task of finding the symbol for their party among several electoral lists covering parliamentary and council seats.
Towards the end of the morning many stations were tripling the number of booths available for casting ballots.
"I came in the early morning, I have just voted. There was a long wait but I have done my duty," said an elderly woman at a Nouakchott polling station.
Party activists near several polling stations discreetly tried to canvas last-minute support, breaking election law.
"I know propaganda is forbidden near polling stations on election day, but everyone is doing," said a campaigner called Rabia when challenged by a journalist.
Tewassoul is the only member of the so-called "radical" opposition, the 11-party Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD), contesting the polls after its coalition partners said they would "boycott this electoral masquerade".
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