Mauritanians voted on Saturday in the first legislative and local elections since 2019 when President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani came to power in a litmus test for the veteran leader ahead of next year’s presidential vote. Ghazouani, who has overseen the West African country’s relative stability in the violence-wracked Sahel, is widely expected to seek re-election next year, though he has not confirmed his plans. His El Insaf party is favoured to win among the 25 parties vying for the backing of around 1.8 million voters. They are choosing 176 members of parliament as well as 15 regional councils and 238 municipal councils. There were snaking queues outside polling stations in the capital, Nouakchott.After casting his vote, Sidelmoustaphe Ould Ntilitt, 40, said he wanted change and hoped the “new parliament breathes new blood into governance”. Issa Habib Fall, 29, echoed him, adding: “We are poor despite our immense wealth.” Ghazouani’s party is the only one to field candidates in all constituencies, which is likely to give him a boost in particular with rural voters in the vast, arid country. El Insaf’s leading challengers are the Islamist movement Tewassoul, the main opposition party in the outgoing parliament, and the Arab nationalist Sawab. “I’m coming because of a sense of duty, obviously,” Mohamed Ould Cheikh, a 30-year-old mining agent, told AFP. “Our duty is to contribute to the development of democracy. Peace and development depend upon it,” he said. Campaigning has been in full swing since April 27, with main parties setting up large tents in Nouakchott. El-Khadir Lamine, an 18-year-old student voting for the first time, said he was hoping for “new opportunities for young people”. For the first time, voters can choose from a list of candidates younger than 35, for whom 11 seats will be automatically attributed in the National Assembly. The voting centres started to close from 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) and results are expected within 48 hours. A second round of voting is scheduled for May 27 for half of the 176 National Assembly seats. Ghazouani, 66, is a general considered one of the main architects of Mauritania’s success against jihadism, in his former role as army chief. After voting, he said that now the politicians had had their say, it was for the voters to have theirs. Everything had been done to ensure that happened “freely and transparently”, he added. “All the material and human conditions have been given to fellow citizens to express themselves freely and transparently,” the official news agency reported the president as saying. The country’s population is divided between Arab-Berber Moors, Afro-Mauritanian descendants of slaves, and other groups of sub-Saharan African origin. Ghazouani made the fight against poverty one of his priorities, carrying out an ambitious social programme that has included distributing food and money to the poorest. But the economy has slowed since the Covid-19 pandemic, and rising inflation due to the war in Ukraine has put cost-of-living concerns at the forefront. El Insaf had a comfortable majority in the previous parliament and analysts have predicted little threat from rival parties. The Tewassoul Islamists are seeking a strict application of Islamic law and are again expected to be the main opposition group in parliament. Sawab is allied with the anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid, the runner-up in the last presidential election, who has long advocated for the descendants of slaves, a community to which he belongs.