Mauritanians in last vote before key presidential election

Mauritania, a frontline state in the Sahel's fight against jihadism, goes to the polls on Saturday for triple elections that will test head of state Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz's record seven months before a presidential vote.

A record 98 parties will take part in legislative, regional and local elections for which more than 1.4 million people are registered. Potential run-off elections would take place on September 15.

Aziz, 61, came to power in a coup in 2008. He was elected in 2009 and again in 2014 for a second five-year term.

He has been frequently accused by opposition figures and NGOs of rights abuses, including the arrest of a former senator and the "secretive" detention of a blogger accused of blasphemy.

He has said several times he will not seek a third mandate, something that would be against the West African country's constitution. But statements by his ministers and supporters have allowed opposition suspicions to flourish.

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A lacklustre campaign ends on Friday, after rallies that drew sparse attendance despite a decision by the opposition to end a long electoral boycott.

Aziz slammed opposition leaders, calling them "villains" and "troublemakers," and appealed for votes to help his Union for the Republic (UPR) party "continue on the path of high achievement and the fight against mismanagement."

Longtime opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah, who heads the Gathering for Democracy (RFD), called on voters to make "the necessary leap to get rid of dictatorship and generalised bankruptcy."

The UPR, which largely won a 2013 legislative election boycotted by almost all radical opposition parties, is campaigning largely on changes it made in the 2017 constitution.

Under it, the country's senate was abolished and a new national anthem and flag were ushered in. Voters endorsed the controversial measures, while the opposition warned they would give the president more power.

Living standards

On the economic front, authorities say growth has revived, with three percent in 2017 and a poverty rate of 31%, against over 40% in 2008.

The opposition, on the other hand, says there has been a fall in living standards since the introduction at the start of the year of new, lower-value bank notes. National debt equals GDP.

Mauritania, which hosted an African Union summit in July, has recently revived diplomatic ties with Morocco, after years of tension over the status of Western Sahara.

That territory, lying inland from the Atlantic coast beside northern Mauritania, was annexed by Morocco in 1975 after Spanish colonial rule ended.

The largely desert country also signed fishing and oil exploitation agreements with its southern neighbour Senegal earlier this year.

In July, a Mauritanian general took over the command of the G5 Sahel force. The armed forces work alongside Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad in a joint military operation aimed at tackling jihadists in the region with backing from Europe.