A flawed election in Mauritania

Having talked the other day about different ways of ranking countries for democracy, we can now test the results on a fairly typical borderline case. The north-west African nation of Mauritania held presidential elections, of a sort, on Saturday.

I seem to have written about Mauritania only twice before: once was back in August 2005, when then-president Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was overthrown in a military coup. Taya had introduced multi-party elections, but they were not regarded as genuinely democratic and his Democratic and Social Republican Party retained firm control.

Unusually for such situations, the coup leaders kept their promises and returned the country to civilian rule, holding democratic elections in March 2007. But the winner, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, lasted only a year and a half before another coup brought General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to power.

Abdel Aziz in turn held a new election in July 2009, in which he was elected president with 52.6% of the vote. The opposition had threatened to boycott, but a negotiated agreement with the government led to them participating in what seems to have been a reasonably competitive process. From there, things went downhill, the head of the electoral commission resigned due to doubts about the process, and opposition candidates accused Abdel Aziz of running a dictatorship with some electoral window-dressing.

Widespread protests were held in 2011-12 as part of the Arab Spring, but seem to have had little impact.

So when legislative elections (there is full separation of powers, on something like the American model) came around last December – which was the other occasion on which I’ve written about Mauritania – most of the opposition parties boycotted them. And they maintained that attitude in the presidential election: Reuters reports that “talks to try to persuade them to take part … broke down in April.”

It’s therefore no surprise that Abdel Aziz has been declared re-elected with 81.9% of the vote, against four largely nominal opponents. Biram Dah Abeid, an anti-slavery activist, was a distant second on 8.7%. Turnout is claimed to be 56.5%, well down on 2009’s 64.6% (that figure is from Wikipedia; I can’t find an official source) but still much higher than the 40% that the opposition was claiming.

With that as background, we can look at how Mauritania’s democracy is assessed. The Economist’s Democracy Index describes it as a “hybrid regime”; its overall score is 4.17 (out of ten), putting it near the bottom of that range. Indeed its score for “electoral process” is only 3.42, so taking that in isolation would categorise it as an “authoritarian regime”: it’s lifted higher by relatively good scores on political participation and civil liberties. (That’s one of the few cases where counting those things improves a country’s ranking – movement the other way is more common.)

Freedom House ranks Mauritania as “not free” with a six (on a seven-point scale) for political rights and a five for civil liberties. Not surprisingly, it does not characterise it as an “electoral democracy”.

Without pretending to be any sort of expert on the country, both organisations’ assessments strike me as a little harsh. Six, the second-worst rating on the political rights scale, puts it in the same basket as such places as Egypt, Ethiopia, Fiji, Kazakhstan and Uganda, but compared to them there seems much more scope for political dissent and competition in Mauritania.

Nonetheless, the general verdict is both clear and justified. Elections, even with several candidates, do not equate to democracy, and Mauritania, while being a long way short of the worst of the worst, is still not a place where politics is the expression of the popular will.

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