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Mauritanians support electoral democracy, but will the government deliver?

Health, education, and economic issues top citizens’ concerns ahead of the June presidential elections.

- June 24, 2024

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania faces another critical test of popular freedom – a presidential election on June 29, 2024. This is Mauritania’s fourth election since a 2008 military coup, and the first election to take place in a climate of greater political openness.

Mauritania has a long history of authoritarian rule, military coups, and democratic deficits. But democratic processes and institutions appear to be consolidating. The North African country passed a litmus test with a peaceful transfer of power in 2019: President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz – who led coups in both 2005 and 2008 – respected the country’s constitutional term limits and stepped down after his second term.

New steps toward fair and competitive elections 

The Independent National Electoral Commission, restaffed in 2022, is now “more balanced,” according to Freedom House. And a new proportional representation system that opposition parties helped introduce in 2022 has increased representation for minority groups. 

Although incumbent President Mohamed Ould Ghazouni (who also serves as the current African Union chairperson) is the clear favorite, this election may be more competitive than the three previous ones. In addition to traditional opponents, new parties and activists united under the banner of Hope Mauritania are contributing to a more dynamic electoral landscape. 

While still citing a litany of restrictions on individual and political rights, Freedom House rewarded recent changes with an improved rating for the country, from “not free” to “partly free.” Do these gains chime with ordinary citizens’ experiences and evaluations of political conditions and the state of democracy? 

Based on face-to-face interviews with 1,200 adults in late 2022, findings from Afrobarometer’s first-ever survey in Mauritania shed light on the country’s democratic health and citizens’ priorities as they approach the election.

Mauritanians’ attitudes toward democracy

Fully four-fifths (80%) of Mauritanians in our survey see elections as the best means of choosing their leaders (Figure 1). A slimmer majority (52%) say multiple parties should contest elections to give the electorate a genuine choice. Given the broad support for elections, presumably many of those who prefer having a single party still want to subject its officials to tests of public legitimacy. 

Majorities also see elections as effective mechanisms for representation and accountability. Nearly six in 10 respondents (58%) say elections help ensure that members of the National Assembly reflect the views of voters. And if leaders don’t represent the interests of their constituencies, 51% of respondents say elections enable voters to remove them from office. 

About six in 10 citizens (59%) say Mauritania’s last national election, in 2019, was “completely free and fair” or “free and fair with minor problems.”

Figure 1: Views on elections | Mauritania | 2022

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 1,200 adults in Mauritania in 2022.

The survey asked: 

  • Which of the following statements is closest to your opinion?
  • Statement 1: We should choose our leaders in this country through regular, open, and honest elections.
  • Statement 2: Since elections sometimes produce bad results, we should adopt other methods for choosing this country’s leaders.
  • Statement 1: Political parties create division and confusion; it is therefore unnecessary to have many political parties in Mauritania. 
  • Statement 2: Many political parties are needed to make sure that Mauritanians have real choices in who governs them.
  • On the whole, how would you rate the freeness and fairness of the last national election, held in 2019? (% who say “completely free and fair” or “free and fair with minor problems”)
  • Thinking about how elections work in practice in this country, how well do elections: Ensure that representatives in the National Assembly reflect the views of voters? Enable voters to remove from office leaders who do not do what the people want? (% who say “fairly well” or “very well”)

However, a majority (56%) say that people “often” or “always” have to be careful about what they say when discussing politics. And outside monitors like Freedom House caution about self-censorship by journalists to avoid sensitive topics, as well as about government constraints on media freedom. In 2023, the government twice cut off mobile internet access to stem the flow of information, after a jailbreak and during protests over the death of a man in police custody. 

Figure 2: Political freedoms | Mauritania | 2022

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 1,200 adults in Mauritania in 2022.

The survey asked: 

  • In this country, how free are you: To say what you think? To join any political organization you want? To choose who to vote for without feeling pressured? (% who say “somewhat free” or “completely free”)
  • In your opinion, how often, in this country do people have to be careful of what they say about politics? (% who say “often” or “always”)

Dissatisfaction with government performance

While a slim majority express satisfaction with democracy, Mauritanians are overwhelmingly unhappy with their government’s performance, especially on key economic issues (Figure 3). Almost nine out of 10 say the government is doing a “fairly bad” or “very bad” job of reining in inflation (89%) and addressing unemployment (85%). About three-fourths give it bad marks on improving living standards of the poor (77%), managing the economy (76%), and dealing with economic inequality (74%). 

Similar majorities are critical of government efforts to fight corruption (74%), improve basic health care (74%), and address educational needs (73%). Security is the one area where positive assessments approach a majority: 46% say the government does a good job of reducing crime, and 50% are pleased with efforts to prevent or resolve violent conflict. 

Figure 3: Assessments of government performance | Mauritania | 2022

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 1,200 adults in Mauritania in 2022.

The survey asked: 

  • How well or badly would you say the current government is handling the following matters, or haven’t you heard enough to say?

Citizens’ priorities for government action

What do these results suggest should be priorities for Mauritania’s next administration? Survey findings point to a mix of public services and economic issues.

Health and education top the list of challenges that Mauritanians want their government to address; 42% of survey respondents cited one or both of these topics among their three priorities (Figure 4). Poverty (40%) and unemployment (34%) elicit almost as much public concern.

Figure 4: Most important problems | Mauritania | 2022

Source: Afrobarometer survey of 1,200 adults in Mauritania in 2022.

The survey asked: 

  • In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that government should address? (Up to three responses per person; figure shows % of respondents who cite each problem among their three priorities.)

These priorities align with other evidence of challenges in these areas. Mauritania’s health and education systems are global underperformers, for instance. The Legatum Prosperity Index ranks these systems as, respectively, 138th and 154th out of 167 countries worldwide. As of 2019, nearly a third (31.8%) of Mauritanians lived at or below the national poverty line. And the International Labour Organization estimates that 10.6% of the labor force are unemployed

Mauritania’s upcoming election is a crucial test, representing an opportunity to solidify the country’s democracy. But the real work of improving health care and education services and addressing poverty, unemployment, and other concerns will begin in the weeks and months after the election. Tackling these issues will be vital if citizens are to see themselves as enjoying the fruits of democracy.

Alfred Kwadzo Torsu is a research analyst for Afrobarometer.

Rehan Visser is an editor for Afrobarometer.