To appease the demands of ethnic minorities and diminish the role and obligations of an already overburdened government, Taya's government hesitantly took the first steps toward democratization and decentralization. In December 1986, residents of Nouakchott and Mauritania's regional capitals, by then numbering twelve, voted for candidates for thirteen municipal councils. The municipal councils consisted of either thirty or thirty-six members, depending on the size of the constituency. For example, the Atar council had thirty seats; Zouīrāt had thirty-six. The councils assumed responsibility for local economic and financial planning and for cultural activities; however, as in the old regional assemblies, theirs was a limited autonomy. In addition to the elected counseillers and mayor, each council included an agent of the state with the title of secretary general, appointed by the minister of interior, information, and telecommunications. The ostensible task of the secretaries general was to provide managerial expertise to the elected counseillers and mayor, none of whom may have had previous administrative experience. At the same time, however, the secretaries general acted as representatives of the central government and thus fulfilled the Taya government's objective of decentralizing while maintaining national control.
Membership in the municipal councils was determined by popular vote with universal suffrage and secret ballots. Locally based political parties, some of which had ties with parties in other areas and all of which included as part of their name the word union, nominated slates for all or a portion of the seats on the council. Debate dealt exclusively with local issues, and a limit of four candidates represented the four slates contesting each seat. The campaigns and elections in December 1986 were conducted in what has been characterized as a surprisingly decorous manner, with between 48 and 65 percent of the electorate voting. To its credit, the government refused to inflate vote totals as is often customary elsewhere in the Third World. In four of the thirteen municipalities, no slate won a majority during the first round of voting, so a runoff vote was held a week later on December 26, 1986. Once seated, the councils elected mayors who, in every city except Nouakchott, had headed the majority slate in the council. In the capital, Mohamed Ould Mah, who headed the Union for Progress and Brotherhood minority slate, won an unexpected victory over the leader of the majority National Democratic Union slate.
In some respects, the election of municipal councils seemed little more than a repeat of earlier, somewhat pretentious attempts to bring the trappings of representative democracy to a society unaccustomed to mass political participation. But unlike earlier efforts, which were inappropriate copies of the colonial administration, the new councils had organic roots and modest aspirations. In light of the paucity of resources available to the mayors and the councils, foreign observers doubted that this experiment in democracy would resolve Mauritania's profound economic and political problems. Nevertheless, the Taya regime asserted that the elections were but a first step in the longterm process of democratization.
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