Men and women in flowing robes marked their ballots Sunday in the country's first presidential election since a coup two years ago — with hopes that the winner will not return them to totalitarian rule.

Nineteen candidates are on the ballot in what is expected to be the desert nation's first free election, the fulfillment of a promise by junta leaders to return the country to civilian rule.

The pastel-clad men and veiled women holding cell phones in their hennaed hands lined up at polling stations before dawn Sunday, eager to be among the first to vote. Once inside, they chose their candidate by writing the Arabic letter "b" for "bismillah" — or "in the name of God" — beside the picture of their choice. Voters emerged with their little fingers stained in indelible purple ink.

"It's a huge step for us," Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, a candidate considered a favorite in the race, said as he emerged from a polling station. "I hope this is the beginning of an irreversible democracy."

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A record 1.1 million of the mostly Muslim Arab-dominated nation's 3.2 million people are registered to vote.

Power in Mauritania has never changed hands at the ballot box, although past votes have been held by dictators amid opposition cries of fraud. The last president, Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya, seized power in a 1984 coup and held it until a popular military junta led by Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall toppled him on Aug. 3, 2005.

Although Vall took power by force, he has been praised for ending totalitarian rule, making good on promises to create a free press, establish an independent judiciary and hold presidential elections within two years.

Upon seizing power, Vall had also promised that neither he nor anyone in the 17-member junta would be allowed to run for office. More than a dozen Arab journalists had gathered to see the president vote.

Emerging from the same voting booth where the country's dictator used to vote to choreographed applause, Vall said: "Today marks the completion of a great body of work. ... We came to power for a specific purpose. We declared we would do specific things. We stayed only so long as it took us to accomplish our goals. There was never a question of staying in power."

Enveloped in sand dunes on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, Mauritania has had 10 coups or attempted coups since winning independence from France in 1960. The 19 candidates include Saleh Ould Hanenna, the man who led three failed coups against Taya, and the country's previous dictator, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, who ruled for five years in the early 1980s. Haidalla was widely criticized for imprisoning opponents and for instituting sharia law, including the cutting off of the hands of criminals.

Among the race's favorites are Abdallahi, a former minister for Taya who fell out with the former ruler and spent six months under house arrest, exiled to a scorching hamlet deep in the Sahara, and Ahmed Ould Daddah, a longtime opposition figure who ran twice against Taya in past ballots and spent four years under house arrest.

The first-place finisher must win at least 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher.

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