Mauritanian Elections: The General Wins through Democracy

Recent presidential election results in Mauritania left shock, astonishment and anticipation in their wake. This begs an evaluation of the different answers given to the question on so many people's minds: what happened?
Mauritania Election

NOUKCHOTT, July 23, 2009 (MENASSAT) - The political scene after July 18th, 2009 is very clear: the president was elected by a wide majority, while the opposition regressed to low levels, which will be difficult to overcome in the near future.

The strength of the state and the opposition's platform

The victory of Mohammad Ould Abdul Aziz carries different messages, garnering him international recognition and legitimacy after the military coup carried out on August 6th, 2008. It also gave him the opportunity to take advantage of the timing, with a popular speech against his opponents, as well imbued his regime with the power of the state, its resources, its army and its marketing tools.

As in every electoral process around the world, voters based their votes on two advertising campaigns: either they are won over by a display of the state’s power, its accomplishments on behalf of its citizens, its capabilities and impressive means of persuasion; or on the other hand, by the opposition’s speeches and its accusations against the regime.

In Mauritania, Ould Abdul Aziz thoroughly exploited the former strategies, pushing the opposition to defend itself without presenting an electoral platform.

Ould Abdul Aziz based his campaign on a rousing popular speech, in which he invoked fighting corruption, distributing money and goods to the poorest families in Mauritania, visiting the poor and staying with them as electoral tactics. He also ordained that market prices for everyday goods be lowered,  by taking advantage of decreasing prices on the international market.

In addition, Ould Abdul Aziz launched a wide charity campaign, donating about $3,900 to each Mauritanian hospital.

He also made sure to draw his citizens with big promises, assuring them that Mauritania has many riches that could make Mauritanians wealthy, but that corrupting forces had turned the country into a poor one.

Ould Abdul Aziz also succeeded in infiltrating opposition circles in the major cities and closed communities, which usually vote for specific candidates.

He was able to play on the religious and nationalist emotions of the Mauritanians when he announced the freezing of relations with Israel during the Gaza offensive. He didn’t stop at that, but went further by accusing his opponents of allying themselves with Zionists against Mauritania. He even said he was “ready to send them to their allies in Israel.”

Money and the army

This lofty speech was not the only success for Ould Abdul Aziz in his electoral campaign, for he also used the power of the state and the army to garner support.

In fact, the commanders and generals of the army stood by Ould Abdul Aziz, allowing him to attract the highest number of voters, not to mention an excessive amount of political money.

On more than one occasion, Ould Abdul Aziz also threatened more a new military coup to prevent his “corrupted” opponents from gaining power.

Throughout his campaign, he fully controlled the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the statistics departments and local administrations. The Mauritanian opposition maintains that the administrative departments supporting General Mohammad Ould Abdul Aziz erased more than 30,000 voters registered after the Dakkar Agreement, which led to the presidential elections in Mauritania. In addition to that, different Mauritanian immigrants living abroad were banned from voting; immigrants voted overwhelmingly against the elected president.

The Opposition: absent speech and obscure aims

The Mauritanian opposition couldn’t have found itself in a worse position, with the agreement signed two months ago confining its maneuvrability and imposing a specific timeline on an unequal race.

The opposition also lost one of its major tactics ––popular speeches and marketing. But this wasn’t the worst, as many of the former politicians and officials who opposed Ould Abdul Aziz were successfully framed as corrupt, although many of the “corrupt figures were [from the ranks of] his supporters” according to the opposition.

During the electoral campaign, the opposition didn’t give any speech on developmental or social issues, while its attacks primarily focused on responding to the general and promising to defeat him.

While opposition candidate, Massoud Ould Belkheir fought slavery and supported the less powerful minorities in Mauritania for more than thirty years, he has in recent years increasingly stood by former ministers and businessmen.

As for the head of the opposition, Ahmad Ould Dada, who previously supported the military coup led by General Ould Abdul Aziz, he also appeared in alliance with the major financial powers he opposed for so many years. He also spent vast amounts of money, renting a private hotel for his campaign and a private jet for his trips.

Ould Dada was also attacked by Ould Abdul Aziz who accused him of corruption and only aiming for the presidential chair.

Ould Dada also used an impressive media machine to inflate his electoral size, and attack his opponents and some of his former allies, but the catastrophic results were enough to reveal the iceberg the opposition leader was leaning on.

What’s next?

According to political observers, the political scene seems to be generally moving towards restructuring a political map based on the ruling majority, which is currently supported by the popular vote, in addition to the army.

The political class is also embarking on the process of renewal and reinvention, banning most of its traditional leaders and figures from the opposition, which became more confused and less capable of maneuvering and presenting a clear program.

Most of the observers bet that the opposition will also witness major changes that will empower the secondary parties, especially the Islamists which are targeting politics with great pragmatism and maneuverability. The Islamist Party accepted the elections results, with its leader Mohammad Jamil Ould Mansour conceding that “the difference in the votes leaves no doubt as to the results of the elections.”

The opposition is not expected to wait  long before conceding the elections’ results, especially amid pressure by its leading figures to do so.

However this picture will be further blurred, if Ould Abdul Aziz executes his threats of putting his opponents on trial, especially business and tribal figures, which would give his opponents a bigger chance to corner him politically. Those who know Ould Abdul Aziz don’t expect him to open up to his opponents, even if he works seriously on avoiding a struggle that might prove costly to his popularity.

The elections revealed the absolute legitimacy of Ould Abdul Aziz, who exchanged his military uniform for a democratic suit he had designed for himself.

But his biggest victory remains his success in uniting the contradictions in the opposition’s platform with the strength of the state, ridding himself of opponents who doubted his legitimacy for more than 10 months.

Democracy in Mauritania remains a continuous gift from the military. Would Ould Abdul Aziz be able to protect himself from another general who might overthrow him and declare a new coup, and from the spiral of coups and elections Mauritania has lived since its independence more than 40 years ago?