By Todd Pitman
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) _ Nearly a year after seizing power in a military putsch that ousted Mauritania's first freely elected leader, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz won the presidency Sunday in a landslide vote his opponents decried as a fraudulent "electoral coup."
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 the 52-year-old retired general who spent his life in the military and resigned only to legitimize his grasp on it 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 here despite being banned.
"Aziz is no democrat," Messaoud said. "He is a soldier, and like all soldiers, he should stay in his barracks. There will be no difference between this regime and the junta" he ruled.
Aziz, however, styles himself as a defender of democracy who staged a coup only to prevent the country from reverting to a past epoch of repressive rule _ which he helped end with an earlier putsch, in 2005.
The final result announced late Sunday by Interior Minister Mohamed Ould Rzeizim 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.
The main opposition candidates rejected the final outcome even before it was announced, saying the count had been "prefabricated." In a statement, they accused 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 told reporters.
In a victory speech, Aziz said his staff and 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 forwarded to the electoral commission headquarters.
Several hundred international observers are monitoring the vote. But key delegations from the African Union and French speaking countries have released their findings.
Lawyer Bouhoube Yni of the nation's independent electoral commission _ whose 15 members represent the rival political parties _ said no serious complaints or proof of fraud had been received so far.
Messaoud spokeswoman Amal Mint Abdallahi said the opposition was preparing to formally submit its complaints. Among them: allegations Aziz's camp handed out ballots pre-marked in his favor and paid voters to cast them; the voters then returned with empty ballots taken from polling stations to prove they had done so, she said.
Abdallahi also alleged Aziz's camp fabricated false identity cards and illegally inflated voter lists.
In his speech, Aziz vowed to eradicate terrorism and ensure his army is equipped to do so. He also said the government must also fight poverty in equal measures, "because the cause of terrorism is poverty."
On the eve of the vote, police exchanged gunfire with two alleged members of an al-Qaida-linked terror cell that had claimed responsibility for gunning down an American teacher here last month. The pair was detained, and one was found wearing an explosive belt.
The U.S. has expressed concern over the steady spread south from Algeria in recent years of al-Qaida's North Africa branch. While Washington never recognized Aziz's junta, it is keen to maintain Mauritania as a bulwark against the terror group and prevent the moderate Muslim nation from sliding toward extremism.
Saturday's election represents a chance for the desert nation straddling the Arab and African worlds to resurrect billions of dollars in pledged international aid, which was cut after Aziz ousted President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi last August. Restarting that aid will be no easy task: Aziz will first have to convince skeptical donors that democracy has really been restored.
Mauritania has suffered five coups since independence from France in 1960, and has been led by military rulers for most of the past three decades.
Born Dec. 20, 1956, Aziz joined the armed forces at the age of 21. Since 1998, he served as head of the presidential guard, a post that allowed him an influential, behind-the-scenes role in the top echelons of power and politics for a decade.
Together with a small clique of the country's senior military brass, he 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 the same military group led by Aziz staged another coup last year, many viewed it as a setback to the nation's democratic gains.
Aziz says he acted to protect the country's nascent democracy; Abdallahi, the president, had begun appointing members of the old regime to senior government posts and was trying to censor the press.
Aziz's junta quickly found itself isolated for breaking the constitutional order, and met unexpected political resistance at home.
Elections offered a way out.
From the beginning, though, Aziz had a huge advantage over his opponents _ who only joined the race a few weeks ago after his junta was replaced by an interim government of national unity that was charged with overseeing the weekend ballot.
Unlike his opponents, Aziz was also able to take advantage of the machinery of state to carry out public works projects like paving roads. He cast himself as "president of the poor," dropping the prices of electricity, water, sugar and gas by as much as a third.
Copyright 2009 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.