AFP - Gabon goes to the polls Sunday to elect a successor to Africa's longest serving ruler Omar Bongo but his 41-year-old son appears to be the frontrunner in the oil-rich country's presidential race.
As campaigning wound down Saturday, Ali Bongo, 50, appeared to have a distinct advantage over the 23 candidates, with the backing of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party and a huge campaign war chest.
The opposition has denounced the corruption and favouritism that is endemic in Gabon, sub-Saharan Africa's fourth biggest oil producer, the world's third biggest provider of manganese and Africa's second biggest wood exporter.
But Ali Bongo has in the course of the two-week campaign called his father's detractors turncoats, banging home the message that the Gabonese people "ate well" and enjoyed stability and prosperity under his four-decade rule.
Until Friday, 23 politicians were in the race to take over from Omar Bongo, who died early in June after 41 years at the helm of the oil-rich central African nation, where an estimated 60 percent of the population of 1.5 million live below the poverty level.
A bid to find a unity opposition candidate backfired Friday, as four contenders denied having pulled out of the race to rally behind a rival to Ali Bongo.
All four dismissed a statement issued earlier Friday saying they had agreed to back former minister Andre Mba Obame.
But representatives of five other candidates told a press conference that they had decided to stand down and support Mba Obame, in line with an initial statement released by his camp.
The original statement, issued after marathon talks, said 11 candidates had quit the race in favour of Mba Obame, who beat former prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong to become the unity candidate in a secret ballot.
But four of those listed in the statement swiftly issued denials.
Casimir Oye Mba, former minister for mines, oil and hydrocarbons, seen as one of the frontrunners, said he was still in the race.
"I am and I remain a candidate in Sunday's presidential poll," Oye Mba said, adding that he was about to take a plane to the provinces for a rally. "I'm pursuing my campaign like I began it."
Three other presidential hopefuls -- Victoire Lasseni Duboze, Bruno Ben Moubamba and Jules Aristide Bourdes Ogouliguende -- also denounced their inclusion in the statement.
"It's a dirty trick," Moubamba told AFP.
Those who confirmed that they had stood down were Eyeghe Ndong, former deputy prime minister Paul Mba Abessole, independent candidate Mehdi Teale, business leader Jean Ntoumoume Ngoua and the Pentecostal leader Anna Claudine Assayi Ayo.
Many candidates have questioned the voters' roll saying 813,164 eligible voters in a country of 1.5 million was way too high.