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Mauritania votes in key test for democracy

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Mauritanians are voting Saturday in general and local elections viewed as a key test of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz's record with the international community calling for a credible and peaceful vote.

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The mobile phone market in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott never sleeps. Under faded umbrellas to protect them from the searing Saharan sun, traders nimbly switch SIM (subscriber identification module) cards and replace overheated phone batteries. In a country with a scarce telecom infrastructure and its approximately 4.5 million strong population spread across vast, often inhospitable terrain, mobile phones are a lifeline in this impoverished West African nation.

With a poverty rate of 31 percent and an official growth rate of three percent, the informal economy in Mauritania enables a large number of otherwise unemployed young people to scrape by. Elections should be a time to address the problems afflicting citizens, but at the mobile market in Nouakchott, Saturday’s elections do not hold out much grounds for hope.

“We have a lot of problems, especially the young people,” explained Hamadi, an unemployed youth. “They don't believe in the elections because of the huge unemployment issue, the problem of waste. There are a lot of problems here and not enough solidarity between ethnic groups."

Human rights groups condemn campaign crackdowns

Mauritania was the last nation in the world to outlaw slavery in 1981, but analysts agree it was merely a legal formality. An Arab-Berber elite continues to enslave black African ethnic groups, according to UN human rights experts, despite a 2007 law, passed under international pressure, that allows slaveholders to be prosecuted.

Saturday’s general elections are viewed as a test for the regime of President Aziz less than a year ahead of the critical 2019 presidential vote. Around 1.4 million registered voters are casting their ballots to elect their members of parliament, regional counselors and mayors

But in the lead-up to the vote, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have condemned the crackdown on dissent, including arrests of opposition figures, anti-slavery activists and journalists.

In his sky blue boubou, or flowing robe, and a small shop to his name, Bah, is not at the bottom of Mauritania’s social scale. But the elections and the promises made by politicians are lost on him. “I heard the promises of the different candidates but I didn't understand anything. I didn't hear anything that met my expectations," he explained.

Guterres calls for credible elections

A day before polls opened, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged "all parties" in Mauritania to contribute to "peaceful and credible elections".

The UN chief "is closely following developments in Mauritania on the eve of the legislative, regional and municipal elections scheduled for 1 September", a statement from his office said. He "urges all parties to ensure the holding of elections that are peaceful and credible and allow for the participation of all interested stakeholders", the statement added.

Aziz, 61, came to power in a coup in 2008. He was elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2014 for a second five-year term.

Although the Mauritanian president has repeatedly stated he will not seek a third mandate, which is against the constitution, the opposition is not convinced by his promises and statements by his ministers and supporters have added to their suspicions.

This year, a record 98 political parties are participating, unlike 2013 when most boycotted the general elections.

Mauritania, which lies in the transition Sahel belt between the Sahara and the African savanna, is a frontline state in the fight against jihadism in the region. In July, a Mauritanian general took over the command of the G5 Sahel, a security and defence alliance of five Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

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