For the first time since Mauritania’s independence, its citizens voted on Saturday for a successor to a democratically-elected president, though a government insider campaigning on a message of continuity is heavily tipped to win.
Polls opened at 7 am (0700 GMT) in the election to replace President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, 62, who since seizing power in a 2008 coup has positioned himself as an ally of the West in the fight against ISIS extremist group.
Located on the northwest African coast and bordered to the east by the Sahara Desert, the country of fewer than 5 million people gained independence from colonial power France in 1960.
Abdel Aziz is stepping aside after serving the maximum two five-year elected terms and has thrown his support behind 62-year-old Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, a former general and defense minister.
Abdel Aziz could maintain significant influence behind the scenes. He said on Thursday that he had not ruled out running again in five years when his term limits would reset.
In the capital Nouakchott’s wealthy Tevragh Zeina neighborhood, more than 100 voters queued calmly in a dusty school courtyard to cast their ballots.
“I thank God that everything is going well,” said Abderrahime Sidi, 35, after voting. “We hope that the results will be consistent with the expectations of all Mauritanians.”
Gilles Yabi, the founder of West African think tank WATHI, said Ghazouani was the clear favorite and would likely continue to rule in Abdel Aziz’s mould, but that he could still surprise.
“Ghazouani is someone who is very discreet. It could well happen that the change is not merely cosmetic,” Yabi said.
Five candidates besides Ghazouani are on the ballot. Former Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, who is backed by Mauritania’s biggest Islamist party, has drawn large crowds on the campaign trail and is considered Ghazouani’s main rival.
Boubacar and another opposition candidate, Mohamed Ould Maouloud, told reporters at their polling places that they were concerned about potential fraud. They have pointed to the absence of international observers and the printing of ballot papers by a company with ties to the ruling party.
Election authorities said there were no political considerations in awarding the contract.