A former military general who ousted Mauritania? first freely elected president was vying yesterday to become its legitimate ruler in elections expected to return power to civilian rule.
Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who toppled former Mauritanian President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in August, is a front-runner among nine candidates on the ballot.
Aziz resigned from the army post and the junta he led in April so he could run as a civilian. But Abdallahi? overthrow made clear the military wields real power, no matter who is president.
The vote epitomizes a half-苞entury-old struggle still being waged across Africa against the ever-strong reign of autocratic strongmen.
At stake is whether Mauritania can really turn its back on an era of military rule, while at the same time taking a hard line against an encroaching al-Qaeda presence in the region.
Late on Friday, police in the capital, Nouakchott, exchanged fire with suspected Islamic extremists, killing one and wounding another who was wearing explosives wrapped around his body, said a police inspector who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
A third suspect escaped, he said, giving no details. The incident did not appear to be related to yesterday? vote.
Last month, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the shooting death of a US professor in Nouakchott, the first attack of its kind there.
Hundreds of international observers were to monitor yesterday? poll, and most expect it to be free and fair.
If no candidate wins the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a runoff, a second round will be held on Aug. 1.
Though nine candidates are contesting, only four are considered serious contenders.
First among them is Aziz, who helped engineer the nation? last two coups and is praised for having ended two decades of harsh dictatorship with the first one in 2005. Also running is Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who led the 2005 junta, and Ahmed Ould Daddah, a popular civilian opposition leader who was runner-up in 2007.
All three are so-called white Moors ?Arabs who make up 30 percent of the population but who overwhelmingly dominate the government, the military and business sectors. Black Moors, who are darker-skinned and consider themselves Arab, account for about 40 percent, while black Africans, some of whom speak languages common with southern neighbor Senegal, account for the rest.
Parliament speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir ?a Black Moor whose parents were slaves ?is also on the ballot. Backed by Abdallahi, he is also thought to have a chance at winning.
Both Boulkheir and Daddah have promised to support each other in a second round, and united, the two candidates could make for formidable opposition to Aziz. Both men are promising to end Aziz? recent era of coups and put Mauritania back on the democratic path.