Voters in the conservative West African state of Mauritania head to the polls on Saturday for legislative and local elections that will serve as a key test ahead of presidential elections next year.

Twenty-five parties are vying for the backing of some 1.8 million voters in the first election since President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani in 2019 took over the vast, arid West African country, known as one of the few poles of stability in the troubled Sahel.

Mauritanians are due to elect 176 members of parliament, as well as 15 regional councils and 238 municipal councils.

A second round is scheduled for May 27 for half of the 176 seats in the National Assembly.

The only party to field candidates in all constituencies, the presidential party El Insaf is heavily favoured to win, especially in rural areas.

"El Insaf will secure a majority in all elections and strengthen Ghazouani's chances of being re-elected in 2024," said Adam Hilelly, an analyst with 14 North Strategies, a US consultancy specialising in Africa.

Ghazouani, 66, is a general considered one of the main architects of Mauritania's success against jihadism, in his former role as army chief.

He has not yet commented on whether or not he will run for a second term as president, but his candidacy is widely considered a given in Mauritania.

- Major players -

El Insaf's leading challengers are the Islamist movement Tewassoul, the main opposition party in the outgoing parliament, and the Arab nationalist Sawab.

The latter is allied with the anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Abeid -- the runner-up in the last presidential election, and whose party is not allowed to contest the vote.

Those two parties' lists cover between 40 and 70 percent of the country.

Other parties are absent from a swathe of the constituencies and will not pose a threat to the ruling party, which had a comfortable majority in the previous parliament.

Since the introduction of multiparty politics in 1991, Mauritanian presidents have always been able to count on a strong parliamentary majority.

Campaigning has been in full swing since April 27, with main parties setting up large tents in the capital Nouakchott.

These come to life in the evening, with speeches by militants, concerts and traditional dances.

"It's the president's party, his social policy and his economic project for Mauritania that are a source of pride for us -- and we support him accordingly," Mohamed Ould Chennan, 60, an economist, told AFP at the ruling party's tent in a posh district of the capital, as musicians performed in the background.

The atmosphere is different in the working-class district of Dar Nain.

"I support Biram, the champion of the struggle for black emancipation", said Amadou Mamadou, a 35-year-old teacher.

"His speech, his dynamism, his commitment suit me."

Biram Dah Abeid has long advocated for the descendants of slaves, a community to which he belongs.

Mauritania's population is divided between Arab-Berber Moors, Afro-Mauritanian descendants of slaves, and other groups of sub-Saharan African origin.

In the south of Nouakchott, a stronghold of the Tawassoul Islamists, people dream of a victory for their party and the strict application of Islamic law.

"It will create wealth and give hope to the country," said Brahim Ould Saleck, 28, a shopkeeper.

- Economics -

Mauritania has experienced an economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

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.

The economic outlook is now better, but Mauritania has been affected by inflation, which the World Bank estimated to be 9.5 percent in 2022.

The rising cost of living is a major concern for voters.

Ghazouani was elected president in 2019, succeeding Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, a former political ally.

Aziz -- a general who seized power in a 2008 coup before being elected president in 2009 and re-elected in 2014 -- is currently on trial for allegedly abusing power to amass a huge fortune, along with a dozen other former officials.