The Mauritanian Elections: Inherent Risks and Challenges to Political Stability
The results of last month’s legislative, regional and local elections in Mauritania have the potential to transform the country’s political landscape, as well as the map of its parties. They will also affect the 2019 presidential elections and influence the appointment of regional review councils to solve development concerns across Mauritania.
Risks associated with the Mauritanian election process
The electoral process in Mauritania raised a number of inherent risks and challenges, including that concerning the future of the political system itself. The elections were characterized by two contentious issues.
The first was the prospect that President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s may win a parliamentary majority that could pave the way for further constitutional changes, including the removal of limits to his Presidential term.
The second concerns the future of the political parties themselves. The provisions of an amendment to the law in 2012 regulating the funding of political parties are particularly strict; Article 20 states that “Any political party that nominates candidates in two general municipal elections and obtains less than 1% of ballots cast in each of the two elections, or abstains from participating in two consecutive general municipal elections, shall be automatically dissolved.” Consequently, 98 of the nation’s 105 political parties entered candidates in the elections.
Another major risk concerned the election of regional councils for the first time in Mauritania. They will replace the upper house of parliament – the Senate – which was abolished by a referendum in August 2017 and its powers temporarily transferred to the National Assembly. The main challenge in this regard is whether this exercise in decentralization will be effective in developing marginalized regions and achieving greater social democracy.
The regional councils were created to end regional marginalization and encourage local development. However, it remains unclear what effect disparities in the resources of the regions will have on their efficacy.
Regional elections also pose a further challenge, in that their effects on existing social and political divisions remain unknown, given the potential risks posed by the tribal nature of Mauritanian society and any intensification of calls for autonomy across the country.
The first round of elections took place on September 1, 2018, with a second round held on September 15. The ruling Union for the Republic Party (UPR), to which President Mohammed Ouled Abdel Aziz belongs, was the only party that to nominate candidates in all constituencies. The turnout was 73.4 percent in the first round and 56 percent in the second.
The ruling Party won 89 seats out of 157 in parliament, while pro-government parties won a further 120 seats (76.4 percent). This guarantees the ruling party an overwhelming majority and the ability to pass any legislation it chooses. The UPR also won a majority in all 13 regional councils. The National Rally for Reform and Development (Tewassoul) – the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – came in behind the pro-government bloc, with 14 seats.
The ruling party also won the majority of the municipal councils (120 out of 219 municipalities). This is important because these elections will determine the future of many of the nation’s political parties, as those with weak results in the municipal elections will be dissolved by force of law. The results of the first round of municipal elections indicated that only 18 out of 98 political parties received more than one percent of the votes cast.
The future of these 80 political parties will be determined by other factors, including their previous performance; they will be dissolved if they boycotted the elections in 2013, or failed to gain the required proportion of the vote in those elections. Those parties that failed to meet the minimum proportion of votes in September but were established after the 2013 elections will survive to run in the next elections – giving them one more chance to avoid dissolution.
Some of the parties due to be dissolved based on their performance in the municipal elections will leave behind representatives appointed in the legislative elections, who will be free to join one of the remaining parties. Consequently, the relative influence of each party in the national assembly will change – no longer reflecting the true outcome of the elections.
Challenges to political stability
The attitude of state authorities towards the Muslim Brotherhood is another contentious issue in Mauritania’s contemporary politics. A few days before the first round of elections, President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz attacked those who described the Brotherhood’s election representatives as “extremists.” He accused the Brotherhood’s detractors of being supported by foreign powers. Following the declaration of the election results – in which the Tawassoul Party won the second largest number of seats in the parliament after the ruling party – the president turned on the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, blaming it and others like it for the various ills that plague many of the Arab countries, and even hinting at the possible dissolution of the party.
Mauritania therefore represents an exception to the rule in North Africa with regard to its attitude towards political Islam. Countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have pursued a different approach, integrating Islamist parties in the political process – and in some cases into government. However, official authorities in Mauritania seem to favor an approach closer to that of Egypt in this regard.
The other issue that may affect national political stability in Mauritania is the impact of the recent elections on preparations for the presidential elections in mid-2019. The opposition accuses the president of attempting to amend the constitution in order to remain in power. Many observers expect this to be the case – particularly after pro-Abdel Aziz parties gained a comfortable majority in the parliament. However, the president has denied accusations that he would “personally’’ amend the constitution.
Nonetheless, although opposition groups reject any move to amend the constitution, in truth it is unlikely to have major impact on political stability. While the election results have exposed the weakness of the opposition, they have also demonstrated the regime’s aptitude in forging political and social alliances.
Moreover, Mauritania’s history since independence has shown that stability in the country is largely dependent on the relations and interactions between the people and the military. Given the president’s ability to build alliances by virtue of his military background, he would appear to represent a source of political stability, even if this comes at the expense of alteration of power in the country.