Polls close in Mauritania

Observers monitoring more than 2,300 polling stations around the largely desert northwest African country say the voting, which had all but wrapped up by the official 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) close, had been completed without incident.

A military junta ruling since it ousted long-time autocratic ruler Maaouiya Ould Taya in August 2005, had promised to return the country to civilian democracy within 19 months.

After casting his vote, the junta leader Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall said he was “satisfied to see Mauritanians embark on the road to democracy and consequently on the way to economic development and political stability.”

The first preliminary results were expected Monday night, according to officials.

A referendum five months ago, marking the first major transitional exercise, had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution limiting presidential mandates and granting parliament powers to censure the government.

About one million people in this poverty-stricken country of about three million were eligible to pick 95 lawmakers for the lower house of the national parliament and 219 local government councillors.

Despite the sweltering desert heat, electoral authorities said the turn-out had been “significant” but did not immediately give overall figures.

“We noted up to 40 percent participation in some polling stations by early afternoon,” Cheik Saad Bouh Kamara, a member of the independent electoral national commission (CENI) said.

A second round of voting takes place on December 3 in seats where no candidate has won 50 percent of the vote.

About 30 parties fielded some 1,600 candidates for seats, but only five parties are considered favourites.

To ensure transparency, members of the transitional government, as well as those of the ruling military junta, are barred from taking part in the polls, in fulfilment of the junta’s pledge for a free and fair process.

The junta has also introduced some historic changes to the political landscape — including allowing Mauritania’s Islamists, long-barred from political life, to make their debut in the country’s democratic march.

The junta has also granted a quota which will see that one out of every five lawmakers and councillors is a woman in this historically male-dominated Arab Muslim country.

The elections are part of a package of democratic reforms being rolled out by the junta, which promised to hand over power at the end of presidential polls slated for March 2007. Senatorial polls are to be organised in January.

Some 500 observers, 200 foreign and 300 local, have been watching the polling.

“No particular incident has been reported by our observers,” said Marie-Anne Isler Beguin, head of the EU team which deployed 87 monitors across the former French colony which straddles west and north Africa.

The EU however, raised a “principal negative point over electioneering propaganda” by some candidates near polling stations.

Poll campaigning officially ended on Friday night.