NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) — Mauritanians voted Saturday to choose their next president, but the incumbent seems certain to retain power because of a boycott by major opposition parties.
Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who assumed power in a coup in 2008 and won elections a year later, has been a staunch ally of the West in facing the growing terror threat in West Africa.
The National Forum for Democracy and Unity, a coalition of main opposition parties, decided to exclude themselves from the contest when the election date was chosen without their input. They complained that Aziz's control of state institutions would ensure his victory and described the vote as "grotesque theater."
Security forces guarded polling stations as voters cast their ballots amid mixed turnout. But in the capital city's poorer outskirts, which are Aziz strongholds, long lines formed. In some areas, so many people were still in line when polling stations were supposed to close that voting was extended.
Aziz faces four candidates, one of whom is the descendent of slaves.
Provisional results are expected overnight and official results Monday. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff vote will be held July 5.
Aziz is from the country's ethnic Arab elite that long has dominated the ruling class, but his policies have made him popular among the poor black majority.
"The important thing is to keep the state strong where citizens can freely express themselves and vote freely," said Mariam Mint Abdallah, a shopkeeper who was voting in an area north of the capital where Aziz himself voted Saturday.
The next president will face huge challenges. Insecurity is growing in the Sahel, a band of countries including Mauritania south of the Sahara Desert. Islamic militants roam in its vast ungoverned spaces. Mauritania's neighbor Mali was overrun by al-Qaida-linked fighters in 2012, until a French-led intervention pushed them back.
But the economy may pose an even greater hurdle. Mauritania is one of the world's poorest countries featuring great economic inequality with Arabs on top, blacks on the bottom. Even though illegal, slavery persists.
"There are not going to be a big fixes to Mauritania's democratic process any time soon. And the much bigger challenges are those of economic growth, employment and youth employment," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.