Mauritania began counting ballots on Saturday evening from its presidential election, as the ruling party claimed its candidate was poised to win a landslide victory.
The election was the first in Mauritania’s history since independence from France in 1960 to choose a successor to a democratically-elected president.
Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, a former general and defence minister, was heavily tipped to replace outgoing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is stepping aside after serving the maximum two five-year elected terms.
Even before polls started to close after 7 p.m. (1900 GMT), Ghazouani’s spokesman, Sidi Ould Domane, told reporters Ghazouani would win an outright majority, thus avoiding a second-round run-off next month.
“Our candidate is going to win the election with flying colors,” Domane said. “You are going to have the confirmation in a few hours.”
Provisional results could be announced by the electoral commission as soon as late Saturday night.
Opposition candidates, speaking earlier in the day, complained about potential fraud, noting the absence of international observers and the printing of ballot papers by a company with ties to the ruling party.
Election officials said there were no political considerations in awarding the contract. Voting in the capital Nouakchott appeared to be largely free of incident.
Since coming to power in a 2008 coup, Abdel Aziz, 62, has positioned Mauritania, home to fewer than 5 million people across a vast expanse of the western Sahara Desert, as an ally of the West against Islamist militants.
Bound by term limits, he threw his support behind the 62-year-old Ghazouani, bucking a trend in which African leaders, including in Rwanda and Congo Republic, have changed term limits to stay in power.
Nevertheless, Abdel Aziz could maintain significant influence behind the scenes. He said on Thursday that he had not ruled out running again in five years when his term limits would reset.
Gilles Yabi, the founder of West African think tank WATHI, said that, if victorious, Ghazouani would likely continue to rule in Abdel Aziz’s mould, but that he could still surprise.
“Ghazouani is someone who is very discreet. It could well happen that the change is not merely cosmetic,” Yabi said.