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Mauritanians voted Saturday in nationwide elections overshadowed by a widespread boycott of opposition parties, with all eyes on the performance of an Islamist party allowed to take part for the first time.
The mainly-Muslim republic, a former French colony on the west coast of the Sahara desert, is seen by the West as strategically important in the fight against Al-Qaeda-linked groups within its own borders, as well in neighbouring Mali and across Africa's Sahel region.
"I think these elections today are a victory for democracy in my country," President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said after visiting his local polling booth in Nouakchott.
Around a third of Mauritania's 3.4 million people are eligible to vote in the first parliamentary and local polls since 2006, a test of strength for Abdel Aziz five years after he came to power in a coup and four years after he won a widely contested presidential vote.
His Union for the Republic (UPR) is expected to retain power but opinion is divided over whether the main Islamist party Tewassoul, only legalised in 2007, will give the favourites a run and emerge greatly strengthened by Saturday's polls.
Some 1,500 candidates from 74 parties representing the administration and the so-called "moderate" opposition are registered to vie for 147 seats in parliament and the leadership of 218 local councils dotted across the shifting sands of the vast nation.
But Tewassoul is the only member of the so-called "radical" opposition, the 11-party Coordination of Democratic Opposition (COD), contesting the polls after its coalition partners said they would "boycott this electoral masquerade".
The party, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, professes to hold more moderate beliefs than the country's jihadist fringe and draws support from female voters and Mauritania's young, urban middle-class -- although it has just four seats in parliament.
It describes its participation as a form of struggle against the "dictatorship" of Abdel Aziz.
The UPR is the only party fielding candidates in every constituency, making it a strong favourite over Tewassoul, its closest rival, and the People's Progressive Alliance of parliament leader Messaoud Ould Boulkheir.
Observers in Nouakchott are split over whether the elections will give Tewassoul a major boost or stymie the nascent party.
The polls are also a test for the rest of the COD, which says election day will "intensify the political crisis in the country" and expects a "relatively large" proportion of the electorate to heed its boycott call.
Ahmed Ould Daddah, one of the main leaders of the "radical" opposition, warned on Tuesday that the UPR was "about to commit fraud as it did in the 2009 presidential election".
Following independence from France and the ensuing one-party government of Moktar Ould Daddah, deposed in 1978, Mauritania had a series of military rulers until its first multi-party election in 1992.
Abdel Aziz seized power in a 2008 coup and was elected a year later, but the COD has never accepted his rule as legitimate and demanded he make way for a neutral leader to administer the vote.
"We made the necessary effort to ensure that everyone could participate in these elections but, unfortunately, not all the parties were involved," the president said casting his ballot.
"I think, unfortunately for them, they missed an opportunity, an important date, because they find themselves in a situation where they will be absent from the National Assembly and therefore the political debate."
The "moderate" opposition includes the three-party Coordination for a Peaceful Alternative, a key player in Mauritania's nascent democratic process responsible for negotiating the establishment of an independent electoral commission.
It was also behind a move to increase the number of seats in the National Assembly from 95 to the current 147 level and a change in the law which outlawed coups and punished slavery, which is nevertheless still practised in Mauritania.