Mauritania vote free of major problems

International observers found no major problems with Mauritania’s presidential election, French officials said Monday, countering opposition claims that the landslide win by the country’s former junta leader was a fraudulent “electoral coup.”

Although observers did not uncover blatant fraud in Saturday’s vote in the former French protectorate, France stopped short of acknowledging the victory of Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the 52-year-old retired general who ousted the country’s president last August.

“There were no major anomalies reported, according to the initial information provided by numerous independent observers present,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux told journalists in Paris.

The final result announced late Sunday gave Aziz 52 percent of the vote, enabling him to avoid a runoff. The count must be validated by the constitutional court before it becomes final.

Parliament speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir came in second with 16 percent, while veteran opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah was third with 13 percent, according to the interior minister.

The main opposition candidates rejected the final outcome even before it was announced, saying the count had been “prefabricated” and accusing Aziz of carrying out “an electoral coup d’etat.”

“We refuse to recognize these results and call on the international community to create a commission to investigate to expose this manipulation,” Boulkheir said.

In a victory speech, Aziz said his supporters had “committed no fraud.” He said the vote could not have been rigged because results from each polling station had to be approved and signed by rival parties before being sent to the electoral commission headquarters.

The poll was officially held to restore civilian rule, but critics say little is likely to change in this moderate Islamic republic on the western edge of the sand-swept Sahara: Power will remain in the hands of Aziz, who spent his life in the military and resigned only to legitimize his grasp on Mauritania by running for president.

“We’ve gone backward to an era of dictatorship,” said Boubacar Ould Messaoud, who heads an organization that fights a tradition of slavery that continues despite being banned. “There will be no difference between this regime and the junta” he ruled.

Messaoud spokeswoman Amal Mint Abdallahi said the opposition was preparing to formally submit its complaints. Among them: allegations that Aziz’s camp handed out ballots pre-marked in his favor and paid voters to cast them, created false identity cards and illegally inflated voter lists.

Aziz, together with a small military clique, helped foment a popular putsch in 2005 that ended the two-decade dictatorship of Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya and paved the way for unprecedented freedoms. But when he and his same group staged another coup last August, many viewed it as a setback to the nation’s democratic gains.

Mauritania has suffered five coups since its independence in 1960, and has been led by military rulers for most of the past three decades.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.