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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 November 2006, 13:36 GMT
Mauritania's first steps to democracy
By James Knight and Katrina Manson
Nouakchott, Mauritania

A man walks in by a stall in Mauritania
For decades Mauritanians lived in a de-facto one-party state
A giant poster, two storeys high, depicts a gleaming waterfront city, all skyscrapers and reflective glass sides.

"Nouakchott tomorrow, why not?" it asks.

Never mind that Mauritania's dishevelled capital is 5km from the sea, and that 40% of Mauritanians live on less than $1 a day.

This is the ambitious vision of Ahmed Hamza, a civil servant turned businessman who is one of the front-runners in the race to become mayor of Nouakchott.

Nearby, goats nibble vigorously at what vegetation exists amid the rubbish, on rutted tarmac roads fringed with Saharan dust.

Mariem Taleb
Women are very respected, but participation in politics has been very limited
Mariem Taleb
After decades of a de-facto one party state, and a military junta that has run the country since it seized power in a bloodless coup in August 2005, Mauritania is taking its first tentative steps towards democracy, and campaign stunts are flying around like sand.

Mr Hamza even recruited Senegalese music star Youssou N'Dour for a free concert given at the Olympic stadium last Sunday.

All over the former French colony, traditional nomad-style tents have sprung up as campaign rallying points in an effort to sway some of the more than 1m Mauritanians eligible to vote come Sunday's triple whammy of elections.

They will be voting at local and regional levels, and picking from a national list of candidates for the legislature.

New beginning

In a deeply traditional society, with strong bonds of caste and clan, for the first time a minimum of 20% of those elected will be women.

Campaign poster

Among them is Mariem Taleb, who is standing for the same seat as Mr Hamza.

Each evening she sits and talks with locals on richly patterned carpets in her campaign tent, staying until 0200.

"Women are very respected in Mauritanian society, but their participation in politics up until now has been very limited," she says.

"Since the coup there has been a great change. The new requirement is to be respected, but it's not enough.

"I hope more will be elected."


Already deputy mayor of her district, she decided to leave the old ruling party, PRDS, associated with the repressive rule of former President Maaouiya Ould Taya, just one month before the election.

Only the name has changed. You can't say it's real democracy
Lamine Moulaye
Together with 20 others on her list, she stands as an independent politician.

"People were tired of political parties," she says.

"I found that becoming an independent was an important solution, part of a new vision. But it's hard for us - we are much less known than the political parties."

Many hope the transition to democracy will usher in better management of Mauritania's resources.

Despite iron, copper, plentiful fish stocks, and the start of oil production in February this year, Mauritania remains among one of the poorest countries in the world.

The presence of independent politicians is not universally welcome, however.

Many standing as independents are part of the old ruling elite, and some voters think the military government is keen to encourage them back into power.

"Nothing has changed," says Lamine Moulaye, 31.

"It's the same people, the same way of working. Only the name has changed. You can't say it's real democracy."

Come polling day he will go to the ballot box because he sees it as his duty, but he says he will void his paper.

International concerns

The polls also serve as a litmus test ahead of the presidential vote planned for March next year.

Map of Mauritania

"These are well-organised elections," says Vincent de Herdt, deputy chief of the European Union observation mission, whose 90-strong team will observe electoral practices before and after the vote, as well as at the count.

The EU is contributing 7.9m euros ($10.2m) to the cost of organising the elections - 60% of the total.

"But almost nothing has been done to raise awareness among electors and there is little debate."

There are concerns that voters - many of whom are illiterate - do not understand the new system.

At a referendum held in June on changes to the constitution, where only a simple yes or no vote was required, more than 7% of ballots were void.

Sunday's elections will see hundreds of candidates go to the polls, with a complicated system of lists, proportional representation and multiple elections.

The EU expects that a much higher proportion of ballots will be invalid as a result.


The EU mission is also concerned that there is no record of how much politicians are spending on their campaigns, and where funding comes from.

Fruit seller in Mauritania
Fruit seller Mohamed says life has improved since the coup

Despite the challenges, many Mauritanians are hopeful of the future, after seeing an improvement in their daily lives since the previous regime was toppled.

"The police used to come to my stall and demand money," says Mohamed, 41, a fruit seller on one of Nouakchott's busiest streets.

"If I refused, they would hit me and take my fruit. Sometimes they would take me to prison and lock me up until I gave them money. Things are better now."

Q&A: Mauritania elections
16 Nov 06 |  Africa

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