Mauritanian voters are headed to the polls in the country’s first election without an incumbent presidential candidate since the 2008 coup.
Polling stations opened Saturday at 8am across the Sahara Desert nation and will remain open until 7pm local time.
President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down, as is mandated by the constitution, after his two five-year terms. His ruling Union for the Republic (UPR) party has put forth former defense minister Mohamed Ould Ghazouani as its candidate.
Opposition candidates say that Ghazouani would not affect any change from the last administration – change they say is desperately needed.
“I think there needs to be a true changeover, because the state today of my country is catastrophic. The economic situation is extremely serious, as are our societal problems,” Sidi Mohammed Ould Boubacar, a former prime minister and leading opposition candidate supported by the Tewassoul party, told VOA.
Boubacar is one of five opposition candidates running to replace the UPR. Other candidates include well-known anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, who has promised a national inquiry into the country’s cases of modern slavery.
Though voters are mobilized by the wide range of candidates, many are wary that the National Electoral Commission, which earlier this year refused appeals to employ foreign observers, may not hold fair elections.
According to a Gallup poll, 64% of Mauritanians do not have faith in the honesty of the elections.
When asked who they believe will win the election, many voters VOA spoke with in Nouakchott preceded their answer with “If the state doesn’t cheat…”.
The country’s last elections in 2014 were heavily criticized for being unfair and were boycotted by many opposition parties. Then-incumbent President Aziz won by 84%.
Mauritania has had five military coups since it gained independence from France in 1960.