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Opposition still divided as voters choose successor to Bongo

Gabon's voters head to polls in presidential elections on Sunday as a fractured opposition scrambles to challenge frontrunner Ali Bongo, son of Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the oil-rich nation for 41 years before his death in June.


AFP - Gabon votes in presidential elections on Sunday to replace Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the oil-rich nation for 41 years before his death in June, with his son seen as a favourite to win.

Opposition leaders have failed to unite behind a single candidate to challenge the ex-president's son, Ali Bongo, 50, who boasts the backing of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party as well as a huge campaign war chest.

Omar Bongo had been Africa's longest serving ruler, and opposition candidates have pledged to end what they call deep-rooted corruption as well as bring about a greater distribution of resources.

Meanwhile, Ali Bongo, who previously served as defence minister, has both defended his father's legacy and labeled detractors turncoats while also pledging change.

"It's not contradictory -- not at all," he told AFP while attending a final campaign rally on Saturday.

Pointing to thousands of supporters chanting his name, he said, "How could I not be confident?"

Gabon is sub-Saharan Africa's fourth biggest oil producer, the world's third biggest provider of manganese and Africa's second biggest wood exporter. But an estimated 60 percent of the population of 1.5 million live below the poverty line.

Though candidates have decried the lack of development in the west African nation, several served in the government for years.

The four heavyweights are former ministers Ali Bongo, Andre Mba Obame and Casimir Oye Mba and radical opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou, and all have promised a fairer distribution of Gabon's natural resources.

A total of 23 politicians were originally in the race.

On Friday representatives of five candidates, including former prime minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong and former opposition leader Paul Mba Abessole, told a press conference that they had decided to stand down and support influential former interior minister Mba Obame.

But four contenders including Oye Mba, former oil minister, denied that they had pulled out of the race as alleged in a statement issued by Mba Obame's camp.

The developments sparked confusion, with Communications Minister Laure Olga Gondjout saying that the names of those who withdrew would remain on the ballot, before being contradicted by the electoral commission.

Many candidates have also questioned the electoral roll, saying 813,164 eligible voters in a country of 1.5 million was way too high and suggesting fraud.

More than 300 observers have been accredited for the vote, including from the African Union, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and a global grouping of francophone countries.

There have been warnings of potential post-election violence.

A group of leading intellectuals in Gabon on Saturday urged all sides not to resort to violence after the election, pointing to "numerous worrying signals" and warning of "confrontations" in the wake of the vote.

France, for decades deeply embroiled in the murky politics of its former colony, has taken pains to insist upon its neutrality in the run-up to the vote.

Under Omar Bongo, Gabon played a key role in the complex web of relationships in France's former African empire.

Polls open at 7:00 am local time (0600 GMT) and close at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT).

The country's borders were closed from late Friday and will not reopen until midnight Thursday. Full provisional results may not be available until Tuesday.

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