Gabonese opposition hopes to topple Ali Bongo as voting begins

President Ali Bongo and Albert Ondo Ossa

President Ali Bongo and Albert Ondo Ossa

Gabonese voters head to the polls on Saturday for 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.

Voting kicks off across the Central African country at 0700 GMT with 19 candidates on the presidential ballot, although six of the main opposition parties have backed a joint nominee in an effort to narrow the race to unseat Bongo.

The vote is a much-anticipated test of support for Bongo.

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.

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.

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The pitch could resonate in a country where one in three 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.

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 disputed both his previous election wins, saying he won fraudulently.

Recent changes to the voting system could further complicate the aftermath, said Remadji Hoinathy, 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 lawmaker 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.

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