The 1,786,488 Mauritanians that have registered to vote between 27 January and 13 March 2023 are called to vote on 13 May for the first round of the legislative election, together with regional and local elections. Although the election might not get much international attention, it will play a key role locally as a first challenge for Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (El Insaf, centre-right) and his administration after four chaotic years for the country.
Ghazouani vs. Aziz – unexpected rivalry
Ghazouani was elected in 2019 as a successor of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (then a member of centre-right UPR) with 52% of the votes with the support of all the presidential majority and some sectors of the opposition. He was seen as a successor of the former president (who reached power after a coup d’état in 2008 and elections negotiated with the opposition in 2009) but ended up distancing with the former as he approved his party supporting the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate corruption during the decade (how the mandate of Aziz between 2008 and 2019 is commonly referred as).
This led to Aziz to leave the party, trying to join the Nasserist and Arab nationalist Socialist Democratic Unionist Party (PUDS, left-wing), which was suspended to alleged irregularities, and for him to end up in the National Cohesion for Rights and the Construction of Generations (Ribat, *), which has since them become “Aziz’s party” due to its populist anti-establishment stance and its full support for the former president, with his sister Fatma Mint Abdel Aziz running as head of the women’s list. The Ribat party ended up deciding not to field Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz as a candidate due to his current judicial process, but it is expected that supporters of the former president (especially in his tribe) will vote for the party.
Four complicated years in power
Less than a year after Ghazouani’s election, the COVID pandemic hit the country and the world. Even though Mauritania managed to contain the spread of the pandemic, the economy has still been affected by never-seen-before inflation rates, aggravated by the rise of the price of crops due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has seen the cost of living rise significantly in a country where poverty is widespread. This makes of the economy one of the key factors that will condition the election.
Ghazouani will also be scrutinised by the high youth unemployment rates (which have led to emigration -both legal and illegal- to rise in the rise), the lack of security on poorer areas, the fight against terrorism and his leadership of anti-terrorism in the Sahel region, the development of the country’s infrastructure and Mauritania’s position in global geopolitics (with ties strengthening with NATO).
An ‘imperfect’ democracy
Ghazouani will also be tested on the democratic development of the country. After managing to agree with all 25 legally recognised political parties on holding snap elections, the ruling coalition has portrayed the president as a defender of the democratic achievements of the country and as a tolerant mediating. However, decisions such as the “Law On Protection Of National Symbols” (which bans undermining “the constant values and sacred principles of Islam, national unity, territorial integrity, or to insult the person of the President of the Republic, the flag and the national anthem” and punishes it with two to four years of imprisonment) have left this to be questioned.
Nonetheless, Mauritania has today became the Maghreb’s most democratic country and is one of the few Arab countries where freedom of press is mostly respected (with not so infrequent exceptions), ranking this year as the 86th country (2nd in the Arab world) in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.
V-Dem Electoral Democracy Index (2023):— Africa Elects (@AfricaElect) March 3, 2023
Top 10 countries covered by Africa Elects
🇸🇨 0.75 (+0.08)
🇸🇳 0.69 (-0.02)
🇿🇦 0.69 (-0.03)
🇸🇹 0.68 (-0.01)
🇲🇼 0.64 (+0.02)
🇱🇸 0.64 (+0.02)
🇱🇷 0.64 (+0.02)
🇳🇦 0.64 (+0.01)
🇬🇭 0.64 (-0.02)
+/- vs. 2022 pic.twitter.com/Sg2SchVgeZ
Learning from the past – a better prepared election
The 2018 Mauritanian elections were characterised by the lack of preparation by the National Independent Election Commission, which had to deal for the first time since Mauritania introduced multi-party politics in the 1990s with 105 parties running in an election, apart with the introduction of a new ballot paper – the one for the directly-elected regional councils replacing the Senate. This lead to a chaotic election season, with voters finding out they had to vote in poll stations that were away or results coming up weeks later.
After the 2018 elections, 76 parties were deregistered due to them not participating or obtaining less than 1% in two consecutive local elections; while several more merged with others, especially with the ruling Union for the Republic (UPR, centre-right), which ended up rebranding as El Insaf (centre-right) in June 2022 after the previous incorporation of several centrist and populist parties aligned with the presidential majority; including the National Pact for Development and Democracy (PNDD-ADIL, liberal), which ruled the country between 2007 and 2008.
This time CENI has organised the elections with months of preparation and has seemed to be mostly transparent, especially with the organisation of a new electoral census; however the fact that anyone can register to vote for any electoral desk from any CENI voter registration centre has led to cases of parties that have organised voters to register in certain constituencies to ensure that certain constituencies go to those parties, as widely reported on the country and denounced by the opposition; which announced that it would unite their election supervision teams into one.
A certain uncertainty
Almost no one questions that El Insaf and the Presidential Majority will keep their comfortable majority in the National Assembly. However, no reliable polling has been conducted in the country and the reforms of the electoral system open the door to a more complicated parliamentary composition. The only reliable data to measure the strength of all political parties is where they’re contesting, which does give information about their strength and regional distribution.
El Insaf (centre-right) is the only party contesting all 176 seats, with Sawab (a Ba’athist party running in coalition with unrecognised RAG (Haratine interests|centre-left) and other Haratine minority platforms) holding the second position with 156 contested seats (some in coalition with other parties). Tewassoul (Islamist), which is currently the second force of the country, only contests 152 seats. One of the surprises is Ribat (*), with the pro-Aziz party contesting 121 seats on its own.
As per the new coalitions State of Justice (conservative, running under UPC (*)’s lists) and Hope Mauritania (left-wing, running under FRUD (Black minority interests)’s lists) have chosen to focus on urban seats, running in most large urban areas but not in the rest of the country.