Mauritania’s military leaders offered a fresh sign of their commitment to democracy on Thursday by pledging to hold presidential elections months earlier than expected, in March 2007.
The junta seized office last August promising a new era of openness and democracy slated to climax with a handover to an elected president after two years.
Speaking to political and civil society leaders and the media, Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar said a presidential poll is scheduled for 11 March 2007, following municipal and parliamentary elections as well as a constitutional referendum.
Members of the ruling Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD) itself have pledged not to run for the presidency. They were greeted by cheering in the streets when they ousted 21-year president Maaouya Ould Taya in a bloodless coup on 3 August.
Rounding out the upcoming election calendar, the prime minister said a constitutional referendum is scheduled for 24 June 2006; municipal and legislative elections, 19 November 2006; and senatorial elections, 21 January 2007.
A national independent electoral commission will be formed in the coming weeks, its 15 members to be selected through consultations with civil society and political parties.
Announcement of the electoral programme comes days after the MCJD held broad-based consultations, inviting representatives of political parties and civil society to discuss Mauritania’s transition - another step seen as signaling a new democratic era.
In opening the consultations, MCJD leader Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall said Mauritanians had been shut out of the political process since independence 45 years ago.
“The Mauritanian citizen stayed - during this long period - practically absent from political decision-making in his own country where decisions were taken in his name.”
One of the first steps the junta took once in power was to declare a sweeping amnesty for political prisoners and exiles, Vall inviting them to "participate in the work of building the country."
Analysts say the recent consultation process is encouraging for Mauritania’s transition, but say only time will tell how committed the junta is to allowing others a real say in decision-making.
“I would like to see a far greater role for civil society and political parties in the transition,” said Boubacar N’diaye, a former civil servant in Mauritania and now professor of political science at Wooster College in Ohio.
“Decision-making must not be limited to the military,” he added.
At the same time Mauritania embarks on its elections, the country is due to join the league of African oil-producing nations.
Mauritania’s Energy Minister Muhamed Ould Sidy Muhamed said this week the country would begin pumping oil in early 2006.
But like some other analysts, N’diaye sees the onset of oil production as worrisome. “This could be a complicating factor,” he said.
“This money will start coming in to the state coffers right in the middle of the transition."