, DJIBOUTI, Apr 8 – Voters in the tiny but strategic Horn of Africa state of Djibouti went to the polls Friday for an election boycotted by the opposition and predicted to return incumbent President Ismael Omar Guelleh for a third term.
Voting opened at 6:00 am (0300 GMT) for the country\’s 152,000 eligible voters with results expected by Saturday. Few doubt the incumbent, who has been in power since 1999 and had the constitution amended last year to run again, would secure another term.
The ballot was boycotted by the main opposition groupings and Guelleh\’s only challenger, Mohamed Warsama Ragueh, is a former head of the constitutional council running as an "independent".
He was endorsed by a senior opposition figure but is not considered a serious threat to Guelleh\’s re-election bid.
"If there\’s an opposition coalition backing the independent candidate, it is in no way a threat to me. On the contrary, it strengthens democracy in our country," Guelleh told reporters Thursday.
"Since 1999, the opposition has been unable to find a leader and a social programme that are convincing to Djiboutians. The only thing they\’re good at is insulting me," he added.
The 63-year-old president vowed at the same press conference that if he gets a third mandate it will also be his last.
"No, this is it, it\’s my last run," said Guelleh, who prior to becoming president in 1999 spent two decades as senior aide to his predecessor Hassan Gouled Aptidon.
In the last presidential poll in 2005, Guelleh, who belongs to the Mamassans, a sub-clan of the Issa, was the sole candidate as the opposition boycotted the vote.
Last year, he had parliament amend the constitution to allow him to seek another term, trimmed down to five years from six, sparking an opposition outcry and fuelling unprecedented demonstrations in February.
Opposition leaders at the time had hoped to turn a student movement into an Egypt-style protest to demand regime change but the largest demonstration turned violent on the first day and soon fizzled out.
The protests were the largest since Djibouti obtained its independence from France in 1977.
The winner of Friday\’s election will get five years at the head of a largely desert country whose small size belies its strategic importance.
Situated on one of the world\’s busiest shipping routes where the Red Sea joins the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti hosts the only US military base in Africa and the largest overseas French army base.