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Mauritania: Ruling party candidate declared winner in presidential election

Former defence minister and continuity candidate Mohamed Ould Ghazouani wins outright majority in the first round, electoral commission says
Presidential candidate Mohamed Ould Ghazouani (C) casts his ballot at a polling station on 22 June in Nouakchott during the presidential election in Mauritania (AFP)

Ruling party candidate Mohamed Ould Ghazouani has won an absolute majority in the first round of Mauritania's presidential election,  the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) said on Sunday.

With almost all of the ballots counted, Ghazouani had won 51.5 percent of the vote, according to data published on CENI's website.

The 62-year-old former defence minister claimed victory in the early hours of Sunday in the presence of current president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, his supporters and journalists.

The closest chellenger to the ex-army chief was Biram Dah Abeid, a prominent anti-slavery activist, with 18.58 percent.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Ould Boubacar, who is backed by Mauritania's biggest Islamist party, had 17.82 percent, according to CENI data.

Around 1.5 million people voted on Saturday.

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Mauritanians are hoping that Saturday's election will prove to be the first peaceful democratic transition of power since the country's independence in 1960.

Presidential incumbent Abdel Aziz is stepping aside after serving the maximum two five-year terms, and he has endorsed the favourite Ghazouani, who served under him as defence minister.

On Saturday, Salma, a 50-year-old voter, told Middle East Eye she was voting for Ghazouani.

"There is a good chance that Ghazouani will bring change," she said.

"I don't know who the best candidate is. All are sons of Mauritania," she said, adding that she was encouraged to vote for the front-runner by her boss.

Ghazouani comes from the Arab-Berber tribes that have dominated the country since independence, and his platform includes economic, political and social reform.

Many view him as the "continuity" candidate, able to maintain economic growth, which stood at six percent this year according to the International Monetary Fund, continue to have strong relations with the West, and keep militants at bay.

However, Alex Thurston, assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown University, said not everyone has benefitted from the spoils of economic growth.

"There are definitely people who think the economy is deeply unequal and deeply rigged. You do see new construction. But you also see serious poverty, and there is tremendous rural poverty too," he told MEE.