- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania

International observers have found no major problems with Mauritania’s presidential election, countering opposition claims that the landslide win by the country’s former junta leader was a fraudulent “electoral coup.”

Although observers did not uncover blatant fraud in Saturday’s vote in the former French protectorate, France stopped short of acknowledging the victory of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the 52-year-old retired general who ousted the country’s president last August.

“There were no major anomalies reported, according to the initial information provided by numerous independent observers present,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux told journalists in Paris this week.

The final result, announced late Sunday, gave Mr. Aziz 52 percent of the vote, enabling him to avoid a runoff. The count must be validated by the Constitutional Court before it becomes final.

Parliament Speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir came in second with 16 percent, while veteran opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah was third with 13 percent, according to the interior minister.

The main opposition candidates rejected the final outcome even before it was announced, saying the count had been “prefabricated” and accusing Mr. Aziz of carrying out “an electoral coup d’etat.”

“We refuse to recognize these results and call on the international community to create a commission to investigate to expose this manipulation,” Mr. Boulkheir said.

In his victory speech, Mr. Aziz said his supporters had “committed no fraud.” He said the vote could not have been rigged because results from each polling station had to be approved and signed by rival parties before being sent to the electoral commission headquarters.

The poll was officially held to restore civilian rule, but critics say little is likely to change in this moderate Islamic republic on the western edge of the sand-swept Sahara: Power will remain in the hands of Mr. Aziz, who spent his life in the military and resigned only to legitimize his grasp on Mauritania by running for president.

“We’ve gone backward to an era of dictatorship,” said Boubacar Ould Messaoud, who heads an organization that fights a tradition of slavery that continues despite being banned. “There will be no difference between this regime and the junta.”

Mr. Aziz, together with a small military clique, helped foment a popular putsch in 2005 that ended the two-decade dictatorship of Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya and paved the way for unprecedented freedoms. But when he and his same group staged another coup last August, many viewed it as a setback to the nation’s democratic gains.

Last year’s coup - Mauritania’s fifth since independence in 1960 - was met with typical condemnation abroad: the African Union suspended the country from its continental body, and international donors froze aid pledges worth $2 billion.

Atypically for this desert nation of 3.5 million people, however, the coup met strong opposition at home. Ousted President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi joined a political coalition that forced the junta to dissolve in June in exchange for Mr. Abdallahi giving up his claim to the presidency.

As part of the deal, a government of national unity was formed to oversee the balloting, which had previously been set to go ahead without the opposition. Their absence would have given Mr. Aziz certain victory, but deprived his win of any legitimacy - and with it, the prospect of restarting vital international aid.

Though some African nations have successfully evolved from dictatorships, others are “backsliding,” in the words of President Obama. In the last year alone, the continent has seen coups in Guinea and Madagascar, the assassination of Guinea-Bissau’s president, and Niger’s leader fighting to stay in power past his legal two-term mandate.

The three leading candidates are so-called “white Moors” - Arabs who make up 30 percent of the population, but who overwhelmingly dominate the government, the military and business sectors. Black Moors, who are darker-skinned and consider themselves Arab, account for around 40 percent, while black Africans, some of whom speak languages common to southern neighbor Senegal, account for the rest.

“There has been an awakening within our society,” said Cheikh Saad Bouh Kamara, a sociology professor and former human rights leader. “People are fighting for democracy and their rights like never before. People are becoming aware, speaking out. Women’s groups, the media, unions, politicians. This is a major change.”

The post-coup isolation imposed by Western powers has forced Mauritania to look for support from the Arab world. One casualty in doing so: Mauritania severed ties with Israel in the wake of the war in Gaza this year. Mauritania had been one of only three Arab League nations maintaining diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, a stance taken in the 1990s to woo the West.

Washington, for its part, has walked a tightrope. It never recognized the junta, but it needs to keep the country from sliding toward extremism. The U.S. sees Mauritania as a bulwark against growing al Qaeda activity in North Africa, which has spread south of Algeria in recent years. In June, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the shooting death of an American professor in the capital, Nouakchott, the first attack of its kind here.

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