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By Laurent Prieur
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Voters in Mauritania went to the polls in Saturday in legislative and local elections expected to bring a once-outlawed Islamist party into parliament for the first time.
The legislative polls - the first since a 2008 army putsch - are being boycotted by most of the West African nation's opposition parties.
They refuse to recognize the authority of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who led the bloodless coup claiming the previous President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was incapable of tackling the economic problems squeezing Mauritania's mostly poor inhabitants.
Candidates allied to Abdel Aziz, who won a presidential election in 2009 and is now a key ally of the West in the fight against al Qaeda in the region, are tipped to secure a comfortable majority.
The Islamist Tawassoul party is one of two opposition parties taking part in the vote.
Banned by the government until 2007, its ideology broadly mirrors that of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political platform calls for "respect for sharia (law) and the rejection of everything which violates it".
Having declared itself prepared for a "revolution via the ballot box" last year, it is seeking to win out against the only other opposition grouping participating in the polls, the APP, to claim leadership of the parliamentary opposition.
In light of the boycott, many anticipated a low turnout reflecting disaffection among voters in the poor, mainly Muslim nation with their political elite.
However elections observers and poll workers told Reuters that early turnout appeared steady.
"The crowds seem consistent with previous polls and in some constituencies in the country's interior it's even higher," an elections commission member told Reuters, asking not to be named because he was not authorized to speak with the press.
"But it's still too early to have clear figures in this respect," he added.
Initial results are expected to trickle in from Sunday. A second round of voting is scheduled for December 7 for those contests in which no candidate wins an outright first round victory.
Straddling black and Arab Africa on the continent's west coast, Mauritania, a country of 3.2 million people, is an iron ore, copper and gold producer with a budding offshore oil and gas sector.
The country has launched at least two air strikes on Islamist camps in neighboring Mali since 2010. Al Qaeda-linked fighters seized the northern two thirds of Mali last year, leading to a French-led military intervention earlier this year to drive them out.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Andrew Roche)