Oil-rich Gabon, ruled by the same political dynasty for nearly half a century, started voting Saturday in long-delayed legislative and municipal polls, the first since a presidential election two years ago that was marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud.
A divided opposition is unlikely to mount a successful challenge to President Ali Bongo’s ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), polls suggest.
His key rival, Jean Ping, is boycotting the election, but most other opposition groups entered the contest.
Most polling stations in the capital Libreville opened at 8.00 am (0700 GMT) under grey skies and light rain.
An early voter, 53-year old shopkeeper Stanislas Bidoubi, told AFP he was backing an opposition party.
“I want change in my country,” he said.
Posters dotted Libreville asking the country’s 680,000 voters to turn up to elect 143 new MPs as well as other local officials.
‘Never missed an election’
Turnout in Gabon elections is usually low, but early queues pointed to lively voter interest, at least in the centre of the capital.
“I’ve never missed an election,” said 52-year-old Rainatou Wagne. “Even if there’s cheating in every African election, as a Gabonese citizen I prefer to vote,” she said.
The controversial re-election of Bongo in August 2016 by just a few thousand votes led Ping to claim that victory had been stolen from him.
Violence broke out and dozens of people were killed according to the opposition, but the government says only four died.
Ping’s headquarters was bombed and the opposition also claimed that widespread human rights abuses were committed by armed militias that took to the streets.
Ahead of this weekend’s vote, pushed back three times since 2016, the campaign was low key.
But on Saturday, some opposition candidates were pointing to alleged irregularities, saying that voting papers had gone missing, there had been attempts to buy votes, and their representatives had been denied access.
‘Torn by crisis’
Political divisions run deep in the equatorial African nation, ruled by Omar Bongo from 1967 until his death in 2009, when his son Ali took over.
And Gabon’s oil-dependent economy has been hit by falling crude prices.
“I am not sure that this election will ease tensions because since 2016, the country has been torn by a crisis that has divided families and changed the political scenario,” said political expert Wilson Andre Ndombet.
The opposition, which rallied around Ping in 2016, is now fractured, easing the way for the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) which, however, is also facing party in-fighting.
Ping, a veteran diplomat who once headed the African Union Commission and has held senior UN posts, was a stalwart in Omar Bongo’s government.
“There is no real opposition in Gabon,” said Gabin Yalanzele from the ruling PDG ahead of polling day.
A Libreville resident, who identified himself as Steven, said before the vote that the ruling party and the opposition were “buying consciences” with T-shirts and other goodies.
A supporter of a party of an opposition figure who has now entered the government, meanwhile said he was not given money to hand out to people who turned up for election rallies but added: “We simply offer free T-shirts or a meal.”
“The party in power certainly has access to some facilities but there are opposition figures who are rich and who just stall the country’s progress,” said Chadi Moukarim, who is second on the list for a local seat in Libreville.
“The electoral process has always been biased,” said Ndombet, adding that “officials manning voting stations were bought” by the ruling party.
The government closed the country’s borders on polling day and banned alcohol sales until the end of voting.