Nouakchott - Mauritania's ruling party is leading in local and legislative elections, while a once-outlawed Islamist party looked poised to become the main opposition, preliminary results showed on Tuesday.
The legislative vote, which was boycotted by 10 other parties, are the first since an army putsch catapulted Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to power in 2008.
Abdel Aziz won a presidential election in 2009 and is now a Western ally in fighting al-Qaeda in the poor and frequently unstable Sahel region of West Africa.
Mauritania, a country of 3.2 million people, has reserves of iron ore, copper and gold and is seeking to encourage exploration in its offshore oil and gas sector.
Initial results from the November 23 vote, the first and most important of two rounds, showed the president's UPR party ahead, although it had not yet secured an absolute majority.
The UPR won at least 36 percent of the seats allocated for the future parliament, according to the electoral commission. But this number is likely to rise in a second round due to take place on December 21 that will determine the remaining seats, which amount to about a fifth of the total.
The UPR previously had 60 percent of all seats.
Tawassoul, the Islamic party banned by the government until 2007 and with an ideology comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood, was expected to secure the leadership of the parliamentary opposition, taking 8 percent of total seats.
Still, the Islamists, who last year said they were seeking “revolution via the ballot box”, may have a smaller portion of the seats than the former lead opposition party RFD, which did not participate in the election.
Mauritania, which straddles black and Arab Africa on the continent's west coast, held its last legislative election in 2006. Previous attempts to hold the legislative vote in 2011 were foiled by wrangling between the opposition and government.
Opposition parties boycotting the election said the voting system is not transparent and demand a new census of voters.
They called on Monday for a cancellation of the first round. But despite their criticism, turnout was high at 75.53 percent, according to Abdallahi Ould Soueid'Ahmed, head of the electoral commission.
Observers from the African Union said last week that the polls “marked significant progress in the path to reinforcing the transparency of the Mauritanian electoral system”.
Mauritania has been instrumental in fighting Islamic militants in the region and launched at least two air strikes on their camps in neighbouring Mali since 2010.