- Hundreds of marquees have appeared all over the towns and far-flung settlements of this vast desert nation ahead of the presidential elections scheduled to begin on 11 March, each representing one of the 19 candidates.
From evening till early morning, men in traditional embroidered white or blue ‘boubous' and women in multicoloured ‘melhafa' voiles promenade from one tent to the other, stopping in to drink green sweet tea on plush Arab rugs and discuss how they might vote.
Given the long history of coups and attempted coups, discussions usually focus on who best can ensure peace and stability and keep the military from again taking over.
Unlike the three previous elections won by former military leader Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, this one is likely to be fair.
The current military head of state, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who overthrew Taya in a palace coup in August 2005, has allowed major democratic reforms, including a more independent judiciary, a less restricted media and an independent electoral commission that is doing all it can to stop fraud.
Voting started with a referendum on a new constitution in June 2006, followed by municipal and legislative elections. The presidential poll is the culmination. For the first time in Mauritania's election history, the United Nations is providing technical assistance, managing US$12 million in donor funds and so far there have been few complaints.
But whether a fairer electoral process will make Mauritania a fairer society, is still far from clear. Certainly the racial make up of the political elite remains unchanged. The list of candidates is skewed in favour of light-skin Moors in a country where the majority of people are black, either black Africans from ethnic groups that straddle Mauritania's southern borders of Senegal and Mali, or black Moors who were former slaves of the white Moors.
All but three of the 19 candidates are white Moors who have dominated either in government or the opposition.
The one black Moor running for president, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir is running on the ticket of equality for all races. But at the time that IRIN visited a cramped, rundown tent in Nouakchott set up by his supporters, only black Moors were present.
An ugly past and present
That white Moors dominate the country politically and economically does not mean that blacks are discriminated against, the director of a section of the ministry of interior set up to promote democracy and civil society, Sidi Yeslem Ould Amar Chein told IRIN.
"At different times, different people have different capacities," he said. "Democracy is a kind of competition and it is not for the state to intervene. Rather the state must ensure that the system is fair".
If indeed the electoral system works and everyone's vote counts equally then it should follow that the candidates would vie for the votes of the black majority.
But so far candidates have mostly glossed over black issues. In their campaign brochures they call for national unity in general terms, rather than laying out a program to redress past biases or acknowledge grievous human rights abuses committed under the previous regime.
Observers say the candidates are not keen to talk about how the country might take responsibility for a massacre committed by the army in the late 1980s of some 500 black Africans, mostly soldiers within the army's ranks. Around the same time the government expelled approximately 70,000 black African Mauritanians.
Some 20,000 still live on the Senegalese side of the border in squalid conditions.
The issue recently resurfaced when the government initially denied expulsed Mauritanians the right to register to vote.
"We had hoped that if such problems were ignored they might just go away," said one white Moor who did not want to give his name. "But they continue to haunt us."
Ignoring the numbers
So far candidates do not appear to be working to capture the black vote, said one Western diplomat not authorised to speak publicly. "I think it's because they are politically immature. They just don't seem to fully comprehend that the vast majority of voters are of African descent. Instead, the candidates and their advisors are still mostly serving the special interests of their white Moorish elite," he said.
According to data provided by various international organisations, more than two thirds of Mauritania's 3.2 million inhabitants are either black Moors or black Africans, while white Moors don't even make up one third.
However many white Moors dispute the figures. "We represent 70 percent of the population," one told IRIN. "Only 15 percent are black Moors and 15 black Africans," he said.
Mauritania's Islamic government has refused to gather or even acknowledge existing data on race because race is irrelevant according to Islam.
In fact blacks seem to agree as many are not voting along racial lines. More black Moors and black Africans were elected to office in last November's municipal and legislative elections than in any previous elections, but the percentage was still a long way from giving them equal representation to white Moors.
Black Moors have a particular affinity with white Moors, often intermarrying and grouping together in the same Arab-style tribes and clans, and black Moors are sometimes appointed as the tribal leader.
Observers say it appears that white and black Moors are voting along tribal lines and in accordance with the pronouncements of religious leaders.
"We did see a case of an unpopular white tribal leader being voted out in favour of a black candidate from another region," said one observer. "But candidates in the upcoming election are mostly seeking the support of tribal and religious leaders, believing that voters will vote for whoever they are told to."
Rather then being driven by race, the elections are being pushed along by the fear of a return to the harsh years of military dictatorship that have been the norm in Mauritania since its independence.
With political and economic stakes rising as the first revenue from oil exploration enters government coffers, candidates' platforms mostly focus on the need for stability.
"We can do nothing without peace," said Moussa Ould Abdou, a media advisor to presidential candidate Mohammed Ould Maouland.
For Abdou, the reason for the 2005 coup was that the white elite have become polarised, and bridging that schism is the first step to achieving stability.
"On the right we have members of the army and business; on the left we have intellectuals, trade unions and lawyers and they are not listening to each other. The role of the next president is to re-unite all the elite," Abdou said.
Creating a new elite is out of the question, he said.
"This country has very few educated people. If they're thrown out of power who can replace them?" he asked.
Despite having a new democracy many people admit that Mauritania's political landscape is not radically different than how it was before. "Everything has changed so that everything can stay the same," was how one observer put it.
For Idoumou Ould Med Lamine, an advisor to Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, one of the leading candidates in the elections and an advisor to the former president, Mauritania needs to be particularly conservative because of its geography.
"Change risks fragmenting us," he said.
But the biggest concern for Mauritanians is the army.
"We need to reassure senior army officers that they will retain their privileges after we civilians are in control," said one candidate's advisor who did not want to be named.
"The military control everything in this country. They were the ones that decided to end military rule and deliver us full democracy. They could just as easily take it away again," he said.
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