Early poll results put Mauritania ruling party candidate Mohamed Ould Ghazouani comfortably ahead in Saturday’s election, taking 50.72% of the vote with just over half votes counted, data from the electoral commission showed on Sunday.
His nearest rival, Mohamed Ould Boubacar, who is backed by Mauritania’s biggest Islamist party, has 18.47% of the vote so far, the figures showed. Biram Dah Abeid, a black Mauritanian slavery campaigner, was neck-and-neck with Boubacar, with 18.24%, with the other candidates in single figures.
About 800,000 votes out of 1.5 million have been counted.
The election was the first in the sparsely populated Saharan nation’s history since independence from France in 1960 to choose a successor to a democratically-elected president. Outgoing President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz surprised many of his compatriots and international observers by stepping aside after serving the maximum two five-year elected terms.
His decision bucked a trend in which African leaders, including in Rwanda and Congo Republic, have changed or abolished term limits to cling to power.
Since taking the helm 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.
Yet unlike some other regional allies, Mauritania has largely been spared reprisals by jihadist militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State who have devastated neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.