Polls opened in Congo Republic on Sunday, with President Denis Sassou Nguesso widely expected to extend his 36-year rule despite an economic crisis in the Central African oil producer.
With his grip on power firm, diplomats and analysts doubt any of Sassou’s six opponents will unseat him or that the election will see a repeat of the sporadic violence that marred the last vote in 2016.
His main opponent, former minister Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, was in hospital with COVID-19 and could be evacuated to France on Sunday, Kolelas’ campaign director told Radio France Internationale.
Even so, the government appeared to be leaving nothing to chance. There was an internet blackout across the country on Sunday, as there was in 2016, according to internet monitor NetBlocks.
Sassou, a 77-year old former paratrooper, rose to power in 1979. He lost Congo’s first multi-party elections in 1992 but reclaimed the presidency in 1997 after a civil war. He later changed the constitution to extend term limits.
Voting began at a polling station in the capital Brazzaville shortly after 7 a.m. (0600 GMT), a Reuters witness said.
United Nations and European Union observers were not invited to monitor the election, and the interior ministry refused to allow the Catholic Church’s 1,100 observers to take part.
Observers are optimistic, however, that the vote will be peaceful. The government signed a peace accord with an anti-Sassou rebel group in 2017, quieting a conflict in southern Congo.
Oil is the lifeblood of Congo’s economy, making up three quarters of state revenues. But the country’s 5.4 million citizens, 41% of whom the World Bank says live below the global poverty line, have little to show for it.
Extreme poverty has only increased since the last election, according to the World Bank, as oil revenues have sharply declined amid slumping global prices. Public debt, much of it owed to oil traders like Glencore and Trafigura, stands at more than 100% of GDP.
Anti-corruption activists say Congo’s opaque national oil company and other key private and public sector institutions remain under the control of a group of Sassou’s closest associates, and allege that graft is rampant.
The government denies allegations of corruption.
“The economic situation has been difficult since 2014, but we have faith, unshakeable faith to propel our country on the path to development,” Sassou said at his final rally on Friday.
Results are expected to be published within four days of voting. If no candidate secures more than 50% of votes, a second round will take place 15 days later.