(MENAFN - Gulf Times) Mauritanians voted yesterday for a new president as the incumbent leader warned that only his chosen successor can maintain stability in the West African country, while the opposition said it saw 'worrying signs of election irregularities.
The ballot is the first in the nation's coup-strewn history that looks set to see an elected president complete his mandate and transfer power to an elected successor, although the opposition has raised concerns that the vote could perpetuate a government dominated by military figures.
Some 1.5mn people are entitled to vote in the Saharan state.
Polling stations opened at 0700 GMT and will close at 1900 GMT, with preliminary results expected at the start of next week.
Mauritania's outgoing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is a general who originally came to power in a 2008 coup, won elections a year later and was again elected in 2014 in polls boycotted by the opposition.
'The country must choose the president it needs to take it on the right path, that of security and stability, said Abdel Aziz, who voted in Nouakchott early yesterday.
He has previously warned that the opposition would reverse progress in the nation and is supporting the presidential bid of a loyal former aide, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani.
Ghazouani, a 62-year-old former general, is considered the frontrunner.
Men and women lined up separately as they waited to cast their vote. They select one name from the list of six candidates, each assigned a number and a symbol, including an ear of wheat, a lion, a key and a teapot.
Voter Abdellahi Ould Vettah called for 'radical change, which is to say: equality, education and social justice, he said.
Abdel Aziz is credited with reforming the army, clamping down on militants and pushing to develop remote regions.
But rights groups have accused the government of restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, while calling on the nation to do more to counter violence against women and slavery, which persists in the state although it was officially abolished in 1981.
Authorities also rejected an opposition request for foreign observers at the election.
This has raised alarm among the opposition, who have warned of potential vote fraud and accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) of bias.
'We remain vigilant, ready to denounce any attempt at fraud, said main opposition challenger Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, who said there had been 'worrying signs.
'The people and the youth will not be robbed of their vote, said Boubacar, 62, a former prime minister who has the backing of a broad opposition coalition. Frontrunner Ghazouani, a one-time head of the domestic security service, served as Abdel Aziz's chief of staff from 2008 to last year.
Ghazouani campaigned on the themes of continuity, solidarity and security.
Boubacar, who was prime minister between 1992 and 1996 and at the helm of a transitional government between 2005-7, hopes to win enough support to secure a runoff vote on July 6.
He is backed by a coalition led by the main opposition movement, Tewassoul.
Nearly 30% said they would vote for Ghazaouani and 23% for Boubacar in a poll of 1,300 people conducted in the capital Nouakchott by the Mauritanian Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (CMERS) last week. The four other candidates are outliers in the race, according to the poll.
Known especially abroad for his media campaigning, anti-slavery activist Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, 55, was credited with 9.5% of voting intentions, followed by veteran opposition figure Mohamed Ould Moloud, 66, with 3.7%. Journalist Baba Hamidou Kane and political newcomer Mohamed Lemine El-Mourteji El-Wavi, each garnered under 3%. Candidates have taken their campaigns around the country — twice the size of France — with a population of just 4.5mn.
They have also courted the heads of tribes and clans in remote regions.
All the candidates promised improvements in the standard of living, though economic growth at 3.6% in 2018 is insufficient to meet the needs of a fast-growing population, according to the World Bank.
'The people need a president who will change their situation, said voter Khadaja Boubacar.