Updated (most recently on 13 March, with election results)
Mauritanians voted in the first round of presidential elections Sunday. If all goes well, these could be truly landmark elections. There was a military coup against a 21-year-long dictatorship in August, 2005, after which the colonels who took power promised a transition to democracy. Such promises are made by newly installed juntas rather more frequently than they are adhered to. However, promised local and legislative elections were held in 2006, and in this presidential election the interim leaders are not themselves standing as candidates. There are nineteen candidates, and it is unclear who is favored.
Mauritania is a member of the Arab League and one of three Arab countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel. It is one of the cradles of the early spread of Islam in the North African/Western Mediterranean region, and its current government is an ally of the US government against Islamist terrorism. (See the BBC country profile.) A successful democratic transition in Mauritania would be rare good political news from the set of Arab, Islamic, and pro-US governments.
Results (13 March update):
The (preliminary) results for the top three candidates are:
24.8%, Sidi Mohammed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, the candidate supported by the al-Mithaq coalition of independents;
20.7%, Ahmed Ould Daddah, long-time opposition leader, whose party won 41 of 95 National Assembly seats in the election last year;
15.3%, Zeine Ould Zeidane, former central bank governor.
(Most of the other sixteen candidates had only regional appeal and all under 10%; Abdellahi and Daddah will run off on 25 March.)
Jonathan Edelstein’s post-election analysis is highly recommended for its discussion of likely inter-round alliances and the implications for including the country’s black population. See also his comment thread.
Whether a runoff can produce anything like a “mandate” when the eventual winner had no more than a quarter or a fifth of the first-round votes is dubious. But, in any case, Mauritania will have its first-ever electorally driven change of government.