Mauritanians vote in last election before key presidential ballot

Hademine OULD SADI
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President Aziz is urging his supporters to flock to his UPR party, denigrating the opposition, who boycotted the last polls, as dangerous Islamists and extremists

Mauritania, a frontline state in the fight against Islamic extremism, voted on Saturday in legislative, regional and local elections that will test head of state Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz's record seven months before a presidential vote.

Military personnel cast their ballots 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 opened at 0700 GMT in the capital Nouakchott but several voters were sent to different polling stations due to last minute changes, an AFP reporter said.

President Aziz hailed the "peaceful and democratic nature" of the ballot after casting his vote but a leading opposition figure Mohamed Ould Moloud deplored logistical snags and hinted the outcome could be flawed.

"There are voters who have been misdirected and don't know where to vote," he said, adding that there were "serious signs of possible fraud".

The opposition boycotted the last polls in 2013 but a record 98 parties are taking part this time. Voting ends at 1900 GMT with results not expected until the middle of next week. There are no international observers.

"I voted for people I support in different parties including some from the ruling party and others in the opposition," a woman who identified herself as Fatimatou told AFP.

"It's not easy," she added after taking eight minutes to fill in the forms and deposit them in five different ballot boxes.

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

Aziz, 61, who came to power in a coup in 2008, won elections 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.

Aziz says he will not seek a third mandate, which would be against the constitution, but statements by ministers and supporters have allowed suspicions to flourish.

- 'Assassinating democracy' -

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".

Earlier this week he accused Islamists of "just awaiting their political failure to take up arms" drawing an indignant response from Jemil Ould Mensour of the Islamist party Tewassoul.

"It is Mr Aziz who took up arms against an elected regime and is assassinating democracy," he charged, referring to the 2008 coup.

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

The ruling Union for the Republic is campaigning largely on changes it made in the 2017 constitution, abolishing the senate and bringing in a new national anthem and flag. Voters endorsed the controversial measures in a referendum, while the opposition warned they would give the president more power.

After more than a year of detention on corruption charges, former senator Mohammed Ould Ghadda was due to be released on Friday, his lawyer said.

However, Ould Ghadda, who led the campaign against the constitutional changes, rejected the conditions set for his release and remained in detention, laywer Mohamed El Mamy said in a statement.

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