- By Matt Buehler
Mauritania, a predominately Arab country that straddles North and West Africa, will hold legislative and local government elections on November 23 (first round) and December 7 (second round), which will be the country’s first full elections since 2006. These elections will replace officials of the national assembly and local governments (i.e. communes) who have continued to carry out their duties even though their elected terms ended, constitutionally, in 2012.
Since gaining independence from France, Mauritania has had a turbulent history: the country’s first president and university graduate, Moktar Ould Daddah, who assumed power in 1960, was ousted by a military coup in 1978. Subsequently, Mauritania was rocked by several additional coups: in 1979, 1980, and 1984. In 1984, a general-cum-president — Maaouya Sid’ Ahmed Ould Taya — asserted control and constructed a dominant regime party, le Parti Républicain Démocratique et Social (PRDS). Akin to Egypt’s National Democratic Party, the PRDS dominated Mauritanian politics for the next 21 years until 2005, when Taya was deposed in a putsch led by two of his closest military advisors, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Ely Ould Mohamed Vall.
Working with a committee of other generals, Abdel Aziz and Vall pledged to democratize Mauritania and enhance its stability. They held elections in 2006 to form the legislature and communes, and also scheduled a presidential election for 2007. The elections were deemed free and fair, and the presidential contest featured vigorous competition between Mohamed Ould Sidi Cheikh Abdallahi, a World Bank economist, and Ahmed ould Daddah, the brother of Mauritania’s first president. The military split in its loyalty for the two candidates during the 2007 presidential election: Abdel Aziz backed Abdallahi, whereas Vall supported Daddah. In a near electoral tie, the former defeated the latter and became Mauritania’s first president after the 2005 coup. A consensus developed among policymakers, academics, and other observers that Mauritania was the Arab world’s first case of democratization, creating hope that it might be a bellwether for other states.
Mauritania’s experiment with democracy was short lived, however. In August 2008, President Abdel Aziz removed his elected predecessor in a surprise coup. Speculations swirled about Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital city, that Abdel Aziz had orchestrated Abdallahi‘s electoral success to facilitate his own eventual rise to power. The Arab League and African Union condemned the military’s ouster of the elected, civilian government. Once he solidified his control, Abdel Aziz pledged to authenticate his rule by election. He did this in a 2009 presidential election, which was non-competitive, largely symbolic.
Postponed several times since Abdel Aziz’s coup, Mauritania’s upcoming legislative and local elections will be the first full elections held since 2006. The stakes and significance of the elections are high. Two parties, allied closely with Abdel Aziz, are poised for victory. These parties are the Union Pour la République (UPR) and a second youth-oriented party, the Parti du Sursaut de la Jeunesse (or Mobilized Youth for the Nation). Created in 2008, the UPR was Abel Aziz’s party for the 2009 presidential election. In 2011, Lalla Mint Cherif, minister of culture, youth, and sport as well as a close ally of the president, founded Mobilized Youth. Observers speculated that the regime tasked Mint Cherif to form Mobilized Youth to rival, divide, and weaken Mauritania’s youth protest movement, the February 25th Movement. Signaling his support for these two parties, Abdel Aziz recently told close associates that his "heart" favors Mobilized Youth for the election, while his "mind" is with the UPR.
The rise to electoral prominence of these two regime parties is reminiscent of the success of another loyalist party in Mauritania’s northern neighbor, Morocco. In 2008, Morocco witnessed the development of a powerful, new party founded by the king’s close friend and former deputy interior minister, Fouad Ali al-Himma. Himma’s Party of Authenticity and Modernity swept Morocco’s 2009 communal elections with a unique electoral strategy, known as the "campaign of thickness." This strategy prioritized maximizing the quantity of candidates without considering their quality. Himma’s party recruited candidates who had strong local ties with voters, but it did not examine their political ideologies or campaign platforms closely. Many of the regime party’s strongest candidates were co-opted from other parties, especially in rural districts.
Like Himma’s party in Morocco, Mauritania’s two regime parties seem to be practicing a similar "campaign of thickness" for these elections. For the local election, the UPR has submitted electoral lists of candidates for all 218 communes, whereas Mobilized Youth has formed lists for 95 communes. Given that the two parties have never competed in a previous communal election, the successful formation of this number of electoral lists across all of Mauritania must have been a major organizational feat (and suggestive of regime complicity). Like Himma’s party in Morocco, the UPR has also practiced co-optation: many of its top leaders, especially communal mayors, were former members of Taya’s dominant regime party.
Mauritania’s opposition, which includes leftists, nationalists, unionists, and civil society organizations, has rejected invitations to compete in the upcoming elections. The opposition parties’ activism is united within an alliance, known as the Coordination de l’Opposition Démocratique (COD). The COD built itself off a previous alliance among the opposition parties called le Front National de Défense de la Démocratie (FNDD), which emerged in 2008 to organize protests in opposition to the 2008 military coup. The COD has already planned anti-election activities, including an automobile protest held in Nouakchott earlier this week and several rallies in towns within Mauritania’s interior provinces that will commence next Sunday. Mustafa ould Badr al-Din, a top opposition leader, announced recently that the COD aims to use the boycott to pressure Abdel Aziz’s regime to grant more concessions and to relinquish new powers.
Unlike the other opposition parties of the COD, Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood — the Tawassoul Party — has chosen to compete in the elections. Legalized in 2007, Mauritania’s Islamist party has an ambiguous relationship with the regime of Abdel Aziz. The Islamist party was one of the strongest members of the FNDD that resisted the 2008 coup: Indeed, the agreement for the opposition alliance was signed in Tawassoul’s headquarters, and its secretary general — Jamil Mansour — served as the FNDD’s first rotating president. Yet, Tawassoul defected from the FNDD to form an electoral alliance with the UPR for the 2009 partial elections, which replaced 17 of 56 senators in Mauritania’s upper chamber. But once the Arab Spring broke out, the Islamists reversed this strategy and rejoined the COD by publishing a
condemnation of Abdel Aziz’s presidency — Reform Before It’s Too Late. Released in February 2011, the report lambasted the president’s "individualistic way" of running the state, "whereby all decisions have been concentrated in his hands alone." Now, however, the Islamists seem to have parted ways with the COD again, choosing to compete in the upcoming elections rather than boycotting them. It will be interesting to see whether Mauritania’s Islamists will secure the electoral success that other Islamist movements have achieved, notably in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, or if the "modest harvest" of Islamist-led democratization in the post-Arab Spring era will undermine Tawassoul’s electoral prospects.
Matt Buehler is post-doctoral fellow at the Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar and assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Tennessee. His research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science.