Progress or Paralysis?: “Lessons Learned” from the 2013 Parliamentary Elections and their Implications for the 2014 Presidential Election in Mauritania

Congratulatory messages have recently inundated the U.S. Embassy in Mauritania’s capital of Nouakchott, as state representatives in Washington D.C. celebrate the “peaceful environment” in which both legislative and municipal elections were held within the historically volatile nation in the final months of 2013. According to reports, official U.S. statements touted the elections as “a landmark step in the development of democracy.” Yet despite the ostensible promise that such elections convey, one would do well to adopt a more cautious approach, and to situate the particular details of such elections within the far more telling– though far less encouraging– timeline of Mauritanian politics.

On Tuesday, December 3rd, announcements were released proclaiming Mauritania’s ruling party, Union for the Republic (UPR), the victor of a second round of legislative elections. Though largely non-violent– marking a significant, albeit insufficient, departure from the series of military coups characteristic of Mauritania’s political processes since its independence in 1960– the recent elections, which many citizens consider merely a reassertion of the status quo, can hardly be perceived as democratic.

The legislative and municipal elections, originally intended to occur in October, 2011, were delayed on four different occasions prior to November/December, 2013, leaving the National Assembly devoid of a legislative mandate for over two years. The persistent delays came at the request of both the majority and opposition parties, due to months of contention that ultimately led to the collapse of political dialogue. The hardline, or “radical,” opposition party– the Coordination of the Democratic Opposition (COD), which encompasses eleven opposition parties– vehemently rejects the political accountability of the UPR, and the legitimacy of its leader and Mauritania’s president, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power after overthrowing President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi– the country’s first democratically elected leader– in 2008. Because President Aziz failed to comply with the COD’s request that he step down, the opposition party boycotted the elections, dismissing the process as unfair and fraudulent and, inadvertently, serving to consolidate President Aziz’s authoritarian claim to state office.

It likely comes as no surprise, then, that the UPR won 74 of the 147 seats in Parliament. Yet, this fails to consider the additional 34 seats gained by UPR allies within partner parties of the incumbent coalition, which ultimately raises the total legislative influence of the UPR to 108 seats– or nearly 75%– of the National Assembly. The outcome of the municipal polls did not prove dissimilar, as the UPR secured 70% of the country’s communes, including a majority in the capital, as well as in the main port city of Nouadhibou.

This is not to discount or undermine the progress toward democratic consolidation that has, indeed, been realized in Mauritania since its first multi-party election in 1992. Media laws in Mauritania are considered to be among the best in the Maghreb region, though privately-owned newspapers continue to face closure for the publication of material deemed offensive to Islam or threatening to the State. Likewise, the “moderate” section of the opposition— which consists, in part, of the three-party Coordination for a Peaceful Alternative– chose not to participate in the COD boycott, and constitutes a primary actor in the process of democratic, inter-party negotiation. In fact, it was this softline coalition which established the Commission Electorale Nationale  Indépendante (CENI), Mauritania’s independent national electoral commission which, in fact, supervised the 2013 elections.

However, the sharp polarization that distinguishes political factions in Mauritania will, if not addressed and amended, likely operate to further demoralize any aspirations for true democracy. The self-assumed exclusion of the COD within the election process, some may argue, has denied the sufficient political opposition necessary for the democratic process to take shape. On the other hand, however, there exists an intrinsic element of weakness and inconsistency within each party or bloc, a notion substantiated by the fact that some 438 candidates contested for seats in Parliament, while a staggering 1,096 contenders registered to compete for the leadership of 218 local councils. It is no secret throughout the arena of Mauritanian politics that coalitions form and disintegrate abruptly, resulting in political platforms that are feeble at best, and oftentimes hollow, which further narrows the window of opportunity for true policy change; debilitates the probability of consolidating a strong and cohesive opposition movement; and, in turn, enhances the likelihood of the UPR’s continued hold on executive, legislative, and communal power.

The manner in which the 2013 legislative and municipal elections occurred proves to have serious implications for the presidential election that will take place in Mauritania this year. Many disheartened citizens wonder whether history will repeat itself, in which case a challenger to the ruling party will fail to manifest and, only by default, will President Aziz win a second term. Of great significance in this regard are the power dynamics that will develop in the months ahead, regarding both the schism within the opposition, between “radicals” and “moderates,” as well as the interplay between the “moderates” and the current regime. Also of great political consequence will be the development of relations between the COD and Tawassoul—the only COD member to have broken the boycott and participated in the elections. If we apply a rational choice perspective to Tawassoul’s parliamentary presence as such is recognized by the Aziz regime, it is evident that there are both potential advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, seats occupied by the Tawassoul party in the National Assembly may prove to bolster the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the incumbent administration and its alleged commitment to democracy. However, it is probable that Aziz will confront challenges if Tawassoul’s following continues to gain momentum and if the party pursues measures to implement its social reform plan. These proposals include, but are not limited to, alleviating ethnic tensions and systematically eradicating the pervasive institution of slavery that has continued to undercut any pledge to democracy while further fraying the socio-cultural fabric of Mauritanian society.

In light of the complexities and indisputable shortcomings of the recent elections in Mauritania, one’s curiosity must be piqued by the exceedingly, and perhaps inappropriately, confident praise hailed from the west upon learning of election results. Just as endogenous power structures and vested interests are at play to sculpt the ways in which the presidential campaign and election processes will evolve, so too are incentive structures and objectives present that bridge national and international spheres. Thus, it may be hypothesized that the latter scenario demonstrated above—in which the authority of the Aziz regime is defied or ultimately deteriorates—will threaten western interests inextricably linked to recently discovered oil reserves, as well as security initiatives against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The array of potential repercussions stemming from varying strategic approaches adopted by opposition parties with respect to President Aziz and the UPR remain to be seen. Many, echoing the west, may advance the argument that the very fact that legislative and municipal elections have finally been held is cause for optimism. However, if an open and receptive political forum is to be cultivated among parties, if substantive reform is to genuinely be pursued, and if the grievances of Mauritanian citizens are to be heard and acted upon, then the political parties and overarching governmental institutions within Mauritania must transcend far beyond the standard of non-violence to realize an inclusive, participatory, and competitive electoral process.


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