Victoria, Seychelles, Oct 24 – Voters on the main islands of the Seychelles cast their ballot Saturday in presidential and parliamentary elections spanning three days, across an idyllic archipelago that has been economically hammered by the coronavirus.
Polling stations opened at 7:00am (0300 GMT) on Mahe, Praslin and La Digue — home to the majority of the 74,600 voters on the Seychelles, with the rest living on further-flung territories of the Indian Ocean nation.
Some voters on northern Mahe gathered as early as 4:30 am. Later, as the morning sun beat down, many held up umbrellas outside the Bel Ombre polling station at a school close to a white sandy beach.
Voting took place Thursday and Friday on a few dozen of these outer islands, mainly for employees of hotels or the island management authority, who attended pop-up polling stations with election materials carried by plane or boat. Some on the main islands deemed essential workers, such as hospital and nursing staff, also voted Thursday.
The opposition, narrowly defeated in a presidential election in 2015 and buoyed by a landmark victory in a parliamentary poll a year later, is hoping for its first presidential win in the 40 years since Seychelles independence from Britain.
It is up against the incumbent Danny Faure, 58, who is running under the recently renamed United Seychelles ruling party which has been in power since 1977.
“I believe I will win these elections,” Faure said after casting the first vote at a polling station in Beau Vallon, Mahe. “And I will respect the will and choice of the Seychelles people.”
He said he would travel to the other islands of Praslin and La Digue to encourage voters to turn out.
The main opposition parties did not manage to unite and Faure — who was not elected but took over after his predecessor James Michel resigned — faces two challengers.
His main rival is the Anglican priest Wavel Ramkalawan, who is taking his sixth shot at the presidency and lost by only 193 votes to Michel in an unprecedented second round of voting in 2015.
He is the candidate of the Linyon Democratik Seselwa (Seychelles Democratic Alliance) opposition party, the majority party in parliament after winning 19 of 34 seats in the last election.
The other candidate is Alain St Ange, who was in the opposition before joining the government as tourism minister from 2012-16, but switched back and is now running under the flag of a new party, One Seychelles.
– Tourism downturn –
The campaign took place mainly over social media, with rallies banned due to the coronavirus. The Bel Ombre polling station was closed briefly so staff could disinfect areas voters had touched.
The Seychelles has recorded only 149 cases, mostly imported, but the pandemic has been a burning campaign issue as restrictions on global travel bottom out the tourism industry — a major earner for the Seychelles and employer for many of its 98,000 people.
Visitor numbers have collapsed since March in the archipelago nation of 115 islands, normally a popular destination for honeymooners and paradise-seekers drawn by its fine sandy beaches and turquoise waters.
The economy has slowed significantly since the start of the pandemic and unemployment has risen from 4.8 to 6.3 percent, according to government figures.
While average income is among the highest in Africa, the national statistics agency says about 40 percent of Seychellois live in poverty because of the high cost of living.