Mauritanians in last vote before key presidential election

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After a turbulent campaign, Mauritania, a frontline state in the Sahel’s fight against jihadism, goes to the polls Saturday for triple elections that will test head of state Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s record seven months before a presidential vote.

Military personnel cast their votes Friday to free themselves up to provide security in the vast and arid west African state with a registered electorate of some 1.4 million.

Polling booths will open at 0700 GMT and close 12 hours later with first results not expected until the middle of next week. There will be no international observers.

Unlike in the last polls which it boycotted in 2013, the opposition is standing in the legislative, regional and local elections in which a record 98 parties will take part.

Potential run-off elections would take place on September 15.

Aziz, 61, came to power in a coup in 2008. He was elected in 2009 and again in 2014 for a second five-year term.

He has been frequently accused by opposition figures and NGOs of rights abuses, including the arrest of a former senator and the “secretive” detention of a blogger.

Although Aziz has said several times he will not seek a third mandate, something that would be against the West African country’s constitution, statements by his ministers and supporters have allowed opposition suspicions to flourish.

Final campaign rallies drew sparse attendance despite the opposition shelving its boycott.

Aziz has slammed opposition leaders as “villains” and “troublemakers.”

He has described some as “dangerous Islamists, racist extremists and the leftovers of former regimes which brought the country to its knees”.

“We must keep them far from office with a massive vote for the UPR,” his Union for the Republic party, which he vowed would “continue on the path of high achievement and the fight against mismanagement”.

Earlier this week he accused Islamists of “just awaiting their political failure to take up arms”.

That brought an indignant response from Jemil Ould Mensour of the Islamist party Tewassoul.

“It is Mr Aziz who has taken up arms against elected regime and is assassinating democracy,” he charged.

Longtime opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah, who heads the Gathering for Democracy (RFD), urged voters to make “the necessary leap to get rid of dictatorship and generalised bankruptcy”.

The UPR is campaigning largely on changes it made in the 2017 constitution.

Under it, the country’s senate was abolished and a new national anthem and flag were ushered in. Voters endorsed the controversial measures, while the opposition warned they would give the president more power.

On the economic front, authorities say growth has revived, with three percent in 2017 and a poverty rate of 31 percent, against over 40 percent in 2008.

The opposition, on the other hand, says there has been a fall in living standards since the introduction at the start of the year of new, lower-value bank notes. National debt is equal to GDP.

Mauritania, which hosted an African Union summit in July, has recently revived diplomatic ties with Morocco, after years of tension over the status of Western Sahara.

That territory, lying inland from the Atlantic coast beside northern Mauritania, was annexed by Morocco in 1975 after Spanish colonial rule ended.

The largely desert country also signed fishing and oil exploitation agreements with its southern neighbour Senegal earlier this year.

In July, a Mauritanian general took over the command of the G5 Sahel force. The armed forces work alongside Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad in a joint military operation aimed at tackling jihadists in the region with backing from Europe.