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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 recognise 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 just three 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 two other opposition groupings participating in the polls, the APP and Al-Wiam, 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. Voting on the day was also hampered in some areas when polling stations opened late while some voters also complained of difficulties finding their names on voter lists.
However, state-owned television TVM announced late on Saturday that more than 60 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots.
"This is a partial figure, because there are still people voting and there are votes that still need to be counted," a member of the elections commission told Reuters, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
Official results are expected within the next three or four days. 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 neighbouring 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 and Eric Walsh)