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After Mauritania’s Elections: Toward Reform or a Political Charade?

[Image of Mauritanian President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Image by Magharebia/Flickr.] [Image of Mauritanian President, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Image by Magharebia/Flickr.]

The first round of legislative and municipal elections held in Mauritania on 23 November signified the end of a two-year period of a parliamentary limbo. The country has been mired in a sustained constitutional crisis since 2011, when elections that were due to take place in September of that year were indefinitely postponed, leaving the National Assembly without a legislative mandate. Over two years later, these legislative and local elections have just now finally transpired.

Around fifteen hundred candidates from seventy-four parties representing the administration and the so-called “moderate” opposition competed for 147 seats in the National Assembly and for 218 municipal council positions. However, ten of the eleven parties that make up the Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD)—an umbrella grouping of different “radical” opposition parties—decided to boycott the elections and called upon citizens to stay away from the ballot boxes. Tawassoul, an Islamist party and member of the COD that had been banned up until 2007, was the only radical opposition party to break ranks and run in the elections. The schism within the opposition between “radicals” and “moderates” is largely a reflection of tactical differences in approach toward the Mauritanian regime, rather than of any kind of political cleavage. The split in the opposition between those who boycotted the elections and those who participated is the latest manifestation of this division.

Mauritania’s incumbent President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power in a military coup in August 2008. He retired from the military in April 2009 in order to run as a candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for the following July. He proceeded to win a comfortable victory over his opponents, who denounced the elections as a charade aimed at legitimizing the 2008 coup. With presidential elections scheduled for 2014, the performance of Aziz’s Union for the Republic (UPR) party in this year’s parliamentary and local elections will be of particular interest.

Leaving aside the complexities of navigating one’s way through fraud allegations, a conspicuous delay in the publication of first round results, and the consequent decision to postpone the second round of voting until 21 December, one could at least tentatively point to the end of Mauritania’s period of political uncertainty as a tangible and undisputed result of the elections. Needless to say, however, a return to nominal parliamentary democracy by no means signifies an end to the various social and economic problems plaguing the country. Of far greater significance is the power dynamic that is likely to follow the vote and the implications of the different strategic approaches that have been taken by opposition parties. So far, the ruling UPR party has led polls by a wide margin, winning fifty-six seats in the parliament and eighty-eight in municipal councils across the country. Having gained twelve parliamentary seats, Tawassoul is set to become the main opposition party. Turnout rates were in excess of seventy-five percent according to the National Independent Electoral Commission. So it would appear, if these figures are to be trusted, that few heeded the COD’s boycott call. For its part, the COD justified its boycott on the grounds that the elections would serve to deepen the political crisis that the country has faced since 2011 by consolidating President Aziz’s authoritarian grip on state power.

Interestingly, this period of political uncertainty has seen a proliferation of organized protest movements as well as sporadic outbursts of unrest, with the COD often playing a central organizing role in mobilizations calling for Aziz to step down. Groups representing a diverse range of interests from a cross-section of society have found common grievances in the perceived corruption and authoritarian tendencies of the government. The violence that often characterizes the regime’s response to demonstrations has effectively enhanced the development of a united front against regime brutality, with the most recent example being a crackdown on a youth protest held on 18 November calling for a boycott of the elections. As has often been the case with Mauritania’s protest movements, the demonstration was jointly held by different interest groups that have a history of cooperation and solidarity with one another. Some of the most prominent of these has been: the 25 February Movement, an urban youth campaign modeled after the Egyptian April 6 Youth Movement; Touche Pas á Ma Nationalité, a group that campaigns on the issue of black African rights in Mauritania, and specifically the perceived racial prejudice of the May 2011 population census, and l’Initiative pour le Resurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste en Mauritanie (IRA-Mauritanie), which campaigns on behalf of the Haratine in Mauritania, an ethnic group that has historically been considered an enslaved class. Although slavery was officially abolished in Mauritania in 1982 and criminalized in 2007, numerous reports suggest that the practice is still widespread today, particularly in rural areas. That these groups have managed to force certain issues into public discourse—both nationally and internationally—may be seen as one measure of their success in campaigning. By aligning themselves with groups representing the interests of black Mauritanians, the Haratine class and Mauritania’s urban youth, the COD has shaped itself as a potential vehicle for increasingly pertinent demands to be voiced through the party-political system.     

Tawassoul—the only COD member to have broken the boycott and participated in elections—seems eager to harness this potential to its own advantage, and may be on its way to doing so, judging by its electoral performance. Under the fourteen-year regime of Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, which was overthrown in a military coup in 2005, under a pretext of fighting terrorism, Tawassoul was banned and its members heavily repressed. Such repression only added weight to allegations that Ould Taya’s regime was being overly deferential to Western security interests in order to legitimize his own grip on power. Following its formal legalization in 2007, Tawassoul enjoyed a brief stint in which it boasted two ministers in government; Habib Ould Hemdeit was the Labor Minister and Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Seyldi was Minister of Higher Education. However, the coup led by Aziz in 2008 pushed the party into the fold of the COD and the radical opposition.

Tawassoul’s overarching aim has always been the attainment of power, as demonstrated by its leader, Mohamed Jemil Ould Mansour. He recently announced that his party’s end-goal is executive control and that being head of the opposition is just a step on the path to governance. Although on the radical end of Mauritania’s political spectrum by virtue of its COD membership and repeated demands that Aziz step down, Tawassoul has been at pains to classify itself as firmly within the moderate camp of political Islam. One need not look too hard to find similarities with other Islamist parties who have made electoral gains in Arab nations, such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  Such comparisons go beyond the common affinity to a moderate interpretation of Islamism, and include similar experiences of political repression, as well as an ambitious drive within the party leadership to govern. Indeed, Tawassoul has openly cited the electoral success of these Islamist movements as justification and inspiration for its participation in elections in Mauritania. However, Mansour has also stressed Tawassoul’s independence as a political party from external forces.

Of great importance to Mauritania’s political scene will be the development of relations between the COD and Tawassoul now that the latter has effectively broken from the ranks of the former. Ahmed Ould Daddah, leader of the COD and veteran opposition politician, has, for his part reserved judgment of Tawassoul’s decision, while also confirming that the Islamists no longer form part of the COD. Of equal importance will be to what extent Tawassoul maintains the links it established and positions it adopted over the course of its rise to prominence as a radical opposition party, with the vocal support it offered to the anti-slavery movement, being one prominent example. From the point of view of the regime, Tawassoul’s parliamentary presence carries potential benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, it may prove useful, for reasons of democratic pretense, to have an outspoken and critical voice join the moderate opposition in the Assembly. On the other hand, however, if the party’s popularity continues to gather momentum at the same pace it has over recent years, and if it takes genuine concrete steps toward implementing its social reform program, then Aziz may be faced with a problematic challenge to his authority.

This latter scenario would not be desirable for Western leaders either, for whom Aziz has been a reliable force against the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). A rearrangement of priorities, which places domestic problems before external security concerns, would effectively necessitate the devaluation of Western interests in Mauritania. While Mansour has emphasized the importance of the fight against terrorism, he argued that it should be carried out first and foremost within Mauritania’s borders, and not at the behest of Western nations. This could be contrasted with the approach taken by Aziz, who carried out at least two airstrikes on Al-Qaeda targets in Mali in 2011. In consistently abiding by Western military policy in the region, Aziz risks fomenting the same dissatisfaction that culminated in the 2005 coup in which the pro-Western Ould Taya was ousted. In the past, Tawassoul has sought to galvanize popular opinion against the perceived pro-Western tendencies of the regime, such as when it successfully pressured the military junta headed by Aziz into cutting off diplomatic ties with Israel during its war on Gaza in December 2008. If a similar degree of pressure from below were exerted around other issues, a shift could occur in the balance between the maintenance of good diplomatic relations and the interests of the Mauritanian people, a balance that at the moment, appears to prioritize the former.

It is clear then that the state of Mauritania’s political landscape is of both national and geopolitical interest. The extent of the rift that has developed between the COD and Tawassoul remains to be seen, but in any case, the opening of such divisions will likely benefit the government more than anyone else. Thirty parliamentary seats and five city councils were contested in the runoff vote held on 21 December. The ruling UPR looks set to maintain its position of strength in the Assembly, although with some of the most important council positions in districts of the capital city of Nouakchott still to be determined, there could yet be room for opposition parties to increase their influence. One could make the case that the very fact that elections have finally been held is cause for optimism. But in and of itself, the end of Mauritania’s constitutional crisis will be a largely aesthetic and superficial development as long as the social and economic grievances of so many in the country continue to go unaddressed.

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