, Libreville, Gabon, Aug 27 – The people of Gabon voted 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 Saturday.
Shortly after voting began, the main opposition candidate, ex-African Union Commission chief Jean Ping, warned that his rival was trying to steal the election.
Ping 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.
– ‘Preparing to celebrate’ –
Nevertheless, Ping appeared confident he would win.
“We are preparing to celebrate victory. You know that our opponents have been completely rejected,” the 73-year-old said as he cast his vote in Libreville.
Outside a polling station at a school, there was a mood of defiance.
“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,” said his friend Fred.
Bongo 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.
“The best way to get rid of Ali and all his group of hangers-on is via the ballot box and that’s what I’ve done,” said Francoise Mba as she cast her vote in Port Gentil, the second city.
The president said Saturday he was “calm”.
“I had a good night,” said the 57-year-old dressed in a light-blue shirt and dark blue jacket.
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.
However, Bongo’s spokesman, Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze, alleged that some of Ping’s supporters in one district of the capital had prevented voters casting their ballots.
Polling stations began closing from 6:00 pm (1700 GMT).
The sometimes tricky job of collating and counting the votes now gets underway 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.
On Friday, each side accused the other of buying up voter cards in various parts of the country.
– ‘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 his years of government service.
His extravagant campaign made much of the slogan “Let’s change together”, playing up the roads and hospitals built during his first term.
In an overt jibe at Ping’s own long association with his father, Bongo also stressed the need to move on from the bad old days of disappearing public funds and dodgy management of oil revenues.
“There’s a risk that certain people who did so much harm to our country will come back” to power, the president told a crowd of thousands during his last rally in the capital on Friday.
As well as working for the Bongos for many years, Ping also has close family ties to the powerful dynasty: he was formerly married to Omar Bongo’s eldest daughter with whom he had two children.
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 and numerous public sector strikes as well as thousands of layoffs in the oil sector.
Fears that this discontent might degenerate into violence were fuelled by memories of what followed Bongo’s contested victory in the 2009 presidential poll.
Several people were killed, buildings were looted and the French consulate in Port Gentil was torched.