Mauritanian leader wins new term in disputed polls

Mauritanian leader wins new term in disputed polls
Mauritanian administrative officers counts ballots at a polling station in Nouakchott.

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania - Mauritania's incumbent leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has won presidential polls with an overwhelming 81.89 per cent of the vote, preliminary results showed on Sunday, after his main rivals boycotted a process they rejected as a sham.

The former general, who seized power in the northwest African nation in an August 2008 coup, campaigned strongly on his success in fighting armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda at home and in neighbouring Sahel nations.

Preliminary results released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) indicated that Abdel Aziz was firmly ahead of anti-slavery candidate Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, who obtained 8.67 per cent of Saturday's ballot.

In third place was Ibrahima Moctar Sarr, with 4.44 per cent while the only female candidate in the race, Lalla Mariem Mint Moulaye Idriss took just 0.49 per cent.

One 70-year-old voter who gave his name only as Brahim said the country, wracked by jihadist violence up until 2010, "had found peace".

"That's important and I want it to continue because peace is irreplaceable."

Kidnappings and attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were frequent when Abdel Aziz came to power, but he boasts that he has turned his nation into a regional haven of peace thanks to his reorganisation of the military and security forces.

The mainly Muslim republic, sandwiched between the west coast of Africa and the Sahara desert, is seen by Western leaders as a bulwark against Al-Qaeda-linked groups.

In 2010 and 2011, Mauritanian troops carried out successful "preventative" raids on AQIM bases in neighbouring Mali, before the armed fundamentalists could carry out planned attacks on Mauritania.

But while many voters expressed support for Abdel Aziz's gains against militants, even his supporters were not content with security alone.

The president "has achieved a lot for Mauritania, but we ask him for more", said Ould Bahaya Ikebra, a civil servant.

"We call on him to fight against unemployment, increase wages and lower prices," he said.

Allegations of fraud

Opposition critics argue that the price of peace has been authoritarian rule and have decided to boycott a vote they regard as a sham.

Main opposition parties have never accepted Abdel Aziz's 2009 victory in an election they said was marred by massive fraud.

The National Forum for Democracy and Unity - an opposition coalition of 11 parties including a moderate Islamist movement - rallied to denounce Abdel Aziz's "dictatorial power" and were counting on a high abstention rate.

On Sunday, the electoral commission said turnout reached 56.46 per cent - higher than previous elections.

Abdel Aziz has four challengers who have highlighted many of the country's sensitive issues such as complex race relations between black Mauritanians and the dominant Arabs.

The only candidate from the black African south was Moctar Sarr, who argued that non-Arab Mauritanians are marginalised.

Ould Abeid, a descendant of slaves, proclaims himself "the sole candidate drawn from disadvantaged levels of the people".

He heads a movement to end slavery which remained legal until 1981 and persists as a deeply entrenched practice documented by rights groups.

Mauritania, nearly as big as Egypt, is a poor country but saw six per cent economic growth last year. It has produced oil since 2006 and is rich in iron ore as well as fish caught off its Atlantic coastline.

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