Nouakchott(Mauritania): Mauritania holds nationwide elections on Saturday overshadowed by a boycott of the "radical" opposition -- apart from an Islamist party that calls its participation a struggle against "dictatorship".
The mainly-Muslim republic, a former French colony on the west coast of the Sahara desert, is seen by the West 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.
Around a third of its 3.4 million people are eligible to vote in the first parliamentary and local polls since 2006, a test of strength for leader Mohamed Ould 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 give the favourites a run and emerge greatly strengthened by today`s polls.
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.
But 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".
The party, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, professes to hold more moderate beliefs than the country`s jihadist fringe and draws support from female voters and Mauritania`s young, urban middle-class -- although it has just four seats in parliament.
It describes its participation as a form of struggle against the "dictatorship" of Abdel Aziz.
The UPR is the only party fielding candidates in every constituency, making it a strong favourite over Tewassoul, its closest rival, and the People`s Progressive Alliance of parliament leader Messaoud Ould Boulkheir.