Some Gabonese voters have encountered delays in taking part in Saturday’s presidential, legislative and local elections that the opposition hopes will foil President Ali Bongo’s bid for a third term and end his family’s 56-year grip on power.
Of Bongo’s 18 challengers, six from major opposition parties have backed a joint nominee in an effort to narrow the race.
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Voting was meant to kick off across the Central African country at 8am local time (07:00 GMT), although several polling stations in the capital, Libreville, saw significant delays, a Reuters reporter said. Posts on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, reported voting had started in some areas, but others noted their polling stations were still closed.
Vote counting will start after polls close at 6pm (17:00 GMT). It is not yet clear when preliminary results will be announced.
The delays could add to concerns about the post-electoral period, which in Gabon has previously seen unrest linked to the opposition disputing the result.
“This election is very tense because I don’t think a vote in our country has ever started so late,” said voter Jeff Mbou at a polling station in Libreville’s Martine Oulabou school, as groups of confused voters milled about.
Test for Bongo
The vote is a much-anticipated test of support for Bongo, who has served two seven-year terms. Detractors say he has done too little to funnel Gabon’s oil wealth towards the third of its 2.3 million population living in poverty and question his fitness to govern after a stroke in 2018.
Bongo, 64, has sought to disprove this image on a wide-ranging campaign trail. He has promised to create more jobs, boost micro-loan programmes, and cut public school fees.
The run-up to the ballot has been smooth, but many fear the post-election period could see unrest like the protests that broke out after Bongo’s 2016 victory. The opposition has disrupted both his previous election wins, saying he won fraudulently.
Recent changes to the voting system could further complicate the aftermath, said Remadji Hoinathy, a researcher at the Africa-focused Institute for Security Studies. These include the introduction of a single ballot that requires voters to pick a presidential candidate and politician from the same party.
The changes “might add more tensions on the outcome of the elections, and then maybe contestations and maybe violence,” Hoinathy said.
Bongo’s camp has positioned him as the firm favourite to win the race, although there has been no reliable polling.
His main threat comes from joint opposition candidate Albert Ondo Ossa, 69, an economics and management professor who has campaigned on the need for change and better economic opportunities.
The pitch could resonate in a country where a third of young people are unemployed and the vast majority of the population has only known Bongo’s rule.
On Friday, large crowds attended the final rallies of Bongo and Ondo Ossa in the capital, Libreville.
“I am 67 years old, I can tell you that I have never seen such enthusiasm for a candidate. I am convinced that this year there will be changeover in Gabon”, said pensioner Alain Moussavou at the opposition rally.