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Mauritania: New Election, New System

Photo: Hugues/CC BY-SA 2.0

What was rumoured already for weeks has been confirmed: Mauritania will hold snap legislative, regional, and local elections in early 2023. This comes after two roundtable negotiations between all registered political partiesโ€”with the unrecognised RAG (Haratine interests|centre-left) and FPC (Black interests) parties also being invited or having indirect representation in the meetingโ€”were hosted by the Ministry of the Interior with parties agreeing to an important election reform.

Mauritania’s party system has seen several changes already. After the 2018 legislative elections, 76 parties from both the opposition and the presidential majority โ€”including some with national representationโ€” were legally disbanded for not running or failing to win at least 1% of the vote in the last two municipal elections. Moreover, several parties have merged into what is now El Insaf (centre-right), the ruling party of Mauritania.

Proportionality, youth and diaspora

The first aspect of the new election reform has been the proportional system. Since day one of the all-party meeting over the organisation of the 2023 elections, most parties on both the government and opposition sides have demanded the inclusion of more seats and electoral districts elected through proportional representation. The latest reform partially answers this demand by increasing seats elected through PR… but it also increases the number of seats elected through the majoritarian system, thus reducing the share of seats elected proportionally from almost 55% to just 50%.

The increase in proportional seats has been done through a creation of a “youth list”, a national proportional list which will elect 11 MPs from the youth (the age limit has been unspecified, though the minimum to run for any elected office is 25 years). They will be elected through a zipper list that will include at least two members representing young Mauritanians with “special needs”. This list has been praised as an attempt to try to include the Mauritanian youth in politics and try to increase turnout overall.

However, the increase of seats elected proportionally has two significant flaws that have led to the reduction of the overall share of seats elected through proportional representation in the National Assembly and a decrease of the chance of smaller parties to get representation in the unicameral legislature of the country.

On the one hand, as all electoral districts outside of Nouakchott are based on moughataas (departments, the second-tier subdivision of the country). The creation of six new departments has led to the reduction of districts with three or more seats (one- and two-seat constituencies are elected on a two-round majoritarian system, which means that the largest party in the constituency will get all seats). Nine departments had proportional representation in 2018, but the number will be reduced to five in 2023.

On the other hand, the district of Nouakchott (the capital and largest city of the country) will be divided from a single 18-seat district to three 7-seat districts based on the three regions or wilayas that the city is divided on: Nouakchott-Ouest, Nouakchott-Nord and Nouakchott-Sud.

The new election reform thus doesn’t fix the main problem of the previous election: the difficulty for the opposition to control the National Assembly since they would need to present candidates in almost all districts. As in many districts, the tribal and family-based vote holds a significant weight and candidates will likely run with the ruling El Insaf only to ensure a safe seat so their tribe’s or family’s interests are well represented and heard.

The last major attribute of the legislative election reform is the right for the Mauritanian diaspora overseas to elect as their representative a member of the diaspora. Until now, the four members representing the districts of Europe, Africa, Asia and America were elected by an electoral college formed by the rest of the elected representatives. This change won’t probably benefit the presidential majority as the Europe and America seats are likely to flip if the opposition fields candidates there. Thus, now Mauritanians in the diaspora will have a say not only on the national lists, but also on who directly represents their interests in Nouakchott. A further proposal was sponsored by an organisation representing the Mauritanian diaspora and backed by 14 different political parties to increase the diaspora’s representation to 15 seats, however it didn’t pass in the end.

Regional and local elections reform

Regional councils were first introduced by the 2017 constitutional reform sponsored by then-President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (UPR, centre-right), as a way to decentralise the country and as a replacement for the Senate. Every wilaya (region) of Mauritania has a regional council, with the exception of Nouakchott, whose three wilayas get a single regional council and whose president (currently Fatimetou Mint Abdel Malick, serving for centre-right El Insaf) acts as the de facto mayor of Nouakchott.

Until now, both regional and local councils were elected through a two-round system. In the first round, residents would vote for one of several lists running. If one list obtained 50% plus 1 of the votes, the council would be distributed proportionally. If not, a second round would be held between the two largest parties. The council then votes for the mayor or president of the regional council. However, this reform has changed the system. From now on, councils will be elected through proportional representation using the largest remainder method with no threshold (the system used in all proportional votes in the country), with the mayor or president of the regional council having to come from the largest list.

This move can be seen as a way to help El Insaf hold competitive councils such as Nouakchott’s regional council, which the presidential majority barely won by one seat in the second round, even if the UPR list led the first round with a quarter of the votes. The presidential majority would also be benefited by the division of the opposition into several lists.

A new party system?

One thing is for sure, with or without the election reform, Mauritania’s political arena is very different nowadays, especially considering how this election will only have a quarter of the parties that ran in 2018 present. The presidential majority’s structure has changed, especially after president Ghazouani (El Insaf, centre-right) fought with his predecessor Aziz (now a member of CNDCG, *) and consolidated power in the newly-formed Coordination of Parties of the Majority (centre to conservative). However, junior partners of the coalition have gained more weight, so El Insaf losing its legislative majority will probably mean that Ghazouani will have to depend on his coalition partners’ support and criticism to pass anything through the National Assembly.

The opposition’s balance of powers has also changed. In the 2019 presidential election, Biram Dah Abeid (RAG, Haratine interests|centre-left) overperformed, surpassing the share of votes obtained by the Tewassoul (Islamist) and HATEM (conservative)-backed candidate Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar (*). Since then, it has been considered that the Democratic Rotation Pole (*|Haratine interests|centre-left) โ€”the coalition between Ba’athist Sawab (*) and the so-far legally unrecognised RAGโ€” is the leading force of the opposition. Biram Dah Abeid even dared to say during a rally that he “would surely win the presidential election”.

The Mauritanian left-wing also sees a change of power relations. Mohamed Ould Maouloud of the UFP (left-wing to centre-left) has started to be a more relevant figure in the left against Ahmed Ould Daddah and his centre-left RFD. Ould Daddah, half-brother of the first Mauritanian president, is now 80 years old and has preferred to adopt a more discreet position in the political arena.

However, as polling is rare in the country (the last poll conducted was in 2019 for the presidentials and failed to predict the final result), the election is very open. This is what you should watch for in the upcoming race:

  • Will El Insaf retain its absolute majority or will it have to rely on the presidential majority to pass anything through the National Assembly?
  • Will the opposition be able to win the election and, if so, form a coalition able to win the 2019 presidentials and form a government?
  • Will Ould Abdel Aziz’s CNDCG enter parliament and, if so, what will be its weight, influence or alignment?
  • Will the Ministry of the Interior recognise RAG and FPC, or even the reformists Bloc of Serious Change (MCC, left-wing) or Forward Mauritania (centre)? If recognised, will RAG and FPC run separately from their coalition partners or form a single list to maximise their results? What influence would the reformists hold in parliament?

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