Mauritania‘s government has declared victory in the country’s competitive presidential election but opposition candidates said they could contest the result.
With counting completed in nearly all polling stations on Sunday, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) said the ruling party’s Mohamed Ould Ghazouani won 51.9 percent of the vote.
“Congratulations to president-elect Mohamed Ould Ghazouani for the trust the people have shown him. We wish him all success in his work,” Communications Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham said in a statement.
Ghazouani had already declared himself the winner in the early hours of Sunday in the presence of current President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, his supporters and journalists.
The election was the first in Mauritania’s coup-strewn history to choose a successor to a democratically elected president.
Ghazouani’s nearest rival, Mohamed Ould Boubacar won 18.67 percent, while Biram Dah Abeid followed in third place with 16.4 percent. None of the three remaining candidates has more than 10 percent.
At a news conference, opposition candidates said they would contest the results if the ruling party won outright.
“This seems like a coup d’etat,” said Abeid, representing himself and the other opposition leaders. “We are united and will lead the contestation [of the results].”
Hitting out at Ghazouani’s claim of victory “while the vote count is still going on”, he said the ruling party candidate’s announcement “constitutes a falsehood”.
‘Prudence and restraint’
Some 1.5 million people were eligible to vote on Saturday in the vast predominantly Muslim Mauritania, a country of fewer than five million people comprising a large chunk of the western Sahara Desert.
Turnout was 62.68 percent, CENI said.
In a statement, CENI said it would continue compiling the results from across the West African country before handing them over to the Constitutional Council.
In the meantime, it said it “advises the candidates to show prudence and restraint,” and hoped the calm climate seen during the campaign and on voting day would prevail.
Ghazouani has campaigned on continuing economic and security progress made under the outgoing president, who took the helm in a 2008 coup. Abdel Aziz won elections a year later and was again elected in 2014 in polls boycotted by the opposition.
The 62-year-old president surprised many of his compatriots and international observers by stepping aside after serving the maximum two five-year elected terms.
His decision bucked a trend, including in Rwanda and Congo Republic, in which African leaders have changed or abolished term limits to cling to power.
Despite his economic record, Abdel Aziz has been criticised for not facing up to the country’s most searing injustice: The persistence of slavery.
Tens of thousands of black Mauritanians still live as domestic slaves, rights groups say, usually to lighter-skinned masters of Arab or Berber descent.
That is despite the practice being abolished in 1981 and criminalised in 2007, the year before he took power.
He has made pronouncements denying slavery is widespread.
Abeid, himself a descendent of slaves, has campaigned partly on this platform. He and other opposition leaders also sought to tap into youth anger at high unemployment.
Al Jazeera and news agencies