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Country goes to polls in presidential election amid calls for boycott


Latest update : 2009-07-16

Voting has closed in Congo-Brazzaville, with President Denis Sassou Nguesso widely expected to win another seven years in power. Opposition members have called for a boycott of the vote over irregularities.

AFP - Congo voted Sunday in presidential elections that incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso was expected to win after several candidates called for a boycott of the ballot they said was already tainted.

Delegates for some candidates did not show up at polling stations when they were to open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT), as the law requires, after claims that the voting rolls had been massively inflated with fake names and dead people.

Many polling stations opened late and voting was slow, officials and witnesses said, with Sassou Nguesso, who returned to power in 1997 after a civil war, seeking a new seven-year term.

"There are more observers than voters," an international observer said on condition of anonymity. Observers included teams from the African Union and non-governmental organisations.

Some 2.2 million Congolese are officially eligible to vote out of a total population of 3.6 million, a number one rights activist suggested had been inflated for the purposes of electoral fraud.

Sassou Nguesso, supported by a wide range of parties grouped under the Presidential Majority Assembly, voted in the morning in the north of Brazzaville.

He flashed a V sign for victory when arriving and leaving, but made no comment. "Turnout seems correct," his spokesman said at around midday.

"We hope that things pick up in the afternoon, when people return from religious services or from shopping," Thierry Moungalla told AFP.

But witnesses said turnout in the capital and country's interior appeared low.

"During 2007 legislative elections, people were already in line at 9:00 am," said Gaston Nganga, head of a polling station in the Bacongo neighbourhood in the south of Brazzaville.

"But today at the same time, we had only 12 people out of 375 registered who have voted."

In the northern border town of Ouesso, voting started slowly in polling stations visited by monitor Andre Logoua, with representatives of Sassou Nguesso and independent candidate Anguis Ngangua Engambe the only ones to be seen.

Opposition candidate Nicephore Fylla de Saint Eudes told reporters after voting that "for the moment, it's going well," before adding that there were problems that had to be cleared up, without elaborating.

There were a total of 13 candidates, including 66-year-old strongman Sassou Nguesso.

On Friday, four of Sassou Nguesso's opponents, including his principal rival, former finance minister Mathias Dzon, called for a boycott.

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 hugely 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 -- a difference of 600,000 compared to the official number.

"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.

The four who called for the boycott, plus two others, also condemned the constitution of the electoral lists, which they said included deceased, fictitious voters, minors and foreigners.

Sassou Nguesso has spent nearly a quarter century in power in Congo.

He 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 international observers said had fallen short of democratic standards.

African Union observers also cited fraud and irregularities in parliamentary and local government elections in 2007 and 2008.

Despite an abundance of oil and timber, which constitute the principal exports, 70 percent of the inhabitants still live below the poverty line.

Polling stations were to close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT). If no candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held.

Date created : 2009-07-12