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Bongo's fate in the balance as Gabon vote counting begins

28 August 2016, 18:53

Libreville - Gabon voted on Saturday in a presidential election pitting incumbent President Ali Bongo against a veteran politician riding on a promise to end a 50-year-old family dynasty.

The election in the oil-rich central African country followed an acrimonious campaign and persistent social unrest, but was carried out in a calm atmosphere with no reports of major incidents.

Except for crowds outside polling stations, the streets of the capital, Libreville, were largely deserted on Saturday.

By evening both parties were claiming victory.

"We can confirm that our candidate, Ali Bongo Ondimba, will win...we are already on our way to a second mandate," said Bongo's spokesman, Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze, adding that he could not offer exact voting figures at this stage.

But a spokesperson for the main opposition candidate Jean Ping said he had more than 57% of the vote against less than 40 percent for Bongo, according to an incomplete early estimate by his team.

Shortly after voting began, Ping - an ex-African Union Commission chief - warned that his rival was trying to steal the election.

He alleged that a decision by the Constitutional Court on Friday allowed soldiers, who traditionally support Bongo, to "vote several times in several polling centres".

"We know the other side is trying to cheat. It is up to you to be vigilant," he told reporters.

However, Bongo's spokesman alleged that some of Ping's supporters in one district of the capital had prevented voters casting their ballots.

"Jean Ping is foolishly not respecting Gabon's institutions and is preparing to announce false results," Bilie-By-Nze said via Twitter, using a hashtag which translates as "Shame on Ping".

'Preparing to celebrate'

Outside a polling station at a Libreville school, there was a mood of defiance among voters for 73-year-old Ping.

"Let them try to cheat and they will see what happens!" said one voter.

Claude Richardin, 36, was voting for the first time. "Elections here have always been fixed but perhaps this one will be transparent," he said.

"What we want is a change of name - 50 years of Bongo is too much," added his friend, Fred.

Bongo, 57, came to power in a contested election in 2009, following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who had been in power for 41 years.

Noting the presence of more than a thousand Gabonese and foreign observers, Interior Minister Pacome Moubelet Boubeya said everything was "is in place to guarantee a transparent and impartial election".

EU vote observers said that at least half of the 2,500 polling stations around the country opened late but otherwise reported no major incidents.

Polling stations began closing from 6:00 pm (1700 GMT), with results expected on Monday.

Campaigning was marked by months of bitter exchanges, including accusations - and strenuous denials - that Bongo was born in Nigeria and therefore ineligible to run.

'Let's change together'

Until recently, Bongo was the clear favourite, with the opposition split and several prominent politicians vying for the top job.

But earlier this month, the main challengers pulled out and said they would all back Ping.

Both candidates have promised to break with the past.

Faced with repeated charges of nepotism, Bongo has long insisted he owes his presidency to merit and years of government service.

His extravagant campaign made much of the slogan "Let's change together", and of roads and hospitals built during his first term.

One third of Gabon's population lives in poverty, despite the country boasting one of Africa's highest per capita incomes at $8 300 thanks to pumping 200 000 barrels of oil a day.

There has been growing popular unrest in recent months, with numerous public sector strikes and thousands of layoffs in the oil sector.

After Bongo's contested victory in the 2009 presidential poll, several people were killed, buildings were looted and the French consulate in Port Gentil torched.



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