, BRAZZAVILLE, Jul 12 – Voting began in Congo’s presidential election Sunday which incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso is expected to win handily amid allegations by a rights group that the government hijacked the electoral process.
A member of the national election committee (Conel) said "an elderly mother" was the first to vote in a polling station in the capital’s northern Ouenze district at 7:18 am (0618 GMT).
But voting had not started in other polling stations around Brazzaville 45 minutes after they opened at 7:00 am, AFP correspondents and witnesses said.
According to official figures 2.2 million people out of a total population of 3.6 million have been registered to vote for one of 13 candidates, including 66-year-old strongman Nguesso.
Polling stations will close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT).
The head of the Congolese Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH), Roger Bouka Owoko, told journalists on Saturday the electoral roll for the poll had been grossly inflated.
"It’s grotesque," he said. "Congo cannot have so many electors."
Owoko said that compared with other countries, with such a population Congo should have an electoral roll of some 1.6 million people.
"This monstrous electoral register is the drawback of the electoral process," he said, adding that "not all the candidates have an equal chance" of winning.
On Friday four of Sassou Nguesso’s opponents, including his principal rival, Mathias Dzon, a former finance minister, called on voters to stay at home and boycott the poll.
The four, plus two others, also condemned the make-up of the electoral lists, saying they included deceased and fictitious voters, minors and foreigners.
Nguesso led the country between 1979 and 1992, before returning to power in 1997 after a civil war.
In 2002, he was elected in a vote that fell short of democratic standards, international observers found.
African Union observers also cited fraud and irregularities in parliamentary and local government elections in 2007 and 2008.
In spite of an abundance of oil and timber, which constitute the principal exports, 70 percent of the inhabitants still live below the poverty line.