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Chad’s Deby eyes fifth term in presidential poll

Issouf Sanogo, AFP | Supporters of Chad's incumbent president Idriss Déby Itno attend a presidential campaign rally at the Ndjamena stadium on April 8, 2016.

Chadians voted Sunday in an election likely to see President Idriss Deby extend his 26-year rule in a country on the frontline of the global war on terror. But this time, the Chadian strongman faces rare public discontent.

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Deby, who took office in a 1990 military coup, faces 12 challengers but is widely expected to win a fifth term after consolidating his grip on power in the impoverished central African nation.

Polling stations opened Sunday shortly after 7am local time and by mid-morning lines were snaking at polling stations in the capital, N'Djamena. There were no reports of trouble, even in the opposition stronghold of N'Djamena.

Reporting from the Chadian capital, FRANCE 24’s Luke Brown said the 2016 presidential election was, “a question of both the past and the present. President Idriss Deby is running on a record of his accomplishments and also as, he says, the sole figure that can ensure stability not only in his own country, but in the wider region as well”.

Speaking to reporters after casting his vote Sunday, Deby said, “Chad must come out of these elections stronger," adding that, "the political class must accept the vote's results, which are the voice of the people”.

Security, economy top election agendas

But while Deby has a proven record of providing stability and has been a valued ally in the global war on terror, he faces rare public discontent on the domestic front.

International human rights groups have raised concerns about Chad’s human rights record. Four activists are currently awaiting verdicts on charges of trying to disturb the peace and resisting arrest. Internet access was down in the capital of N'Djamena on election day, residents reported.

And for the first time since he came to power in 1990, Deby faces a tough challenge from opposition candidates. The Chadian strongman could face a second round of voting if he does not make the 50 percent mark due to the large number of presidential candidates.

Under Deby’s leadership, once unstable Chad has become both an oil producer and key player on the global anti-jihadist frontline, winning new strategic influence.

But despite a wealth of new oil resources since 2003, half of the population of 13 million lives below the poverty line and seven out of 10 people cannot read or write.

“The question of security is one of the key issues,” explained Brown. “The other key question though is the economy – falling oil prices have really hurt economic growth in the country and many are feeling the pinch. That’s generating quite a lot of popular discontent. Poverty levels, which were already very high, are increasing and many are questioning the progress that has been made under Idriss Deby and they are questioning whether they should turn to one of the 12 other candidates that are running against him.”

Security forces were out in force for the election, which comes after Chad was recently hit by a series of suicide attacks.

Jihadist threats as well as ethnic tensions

The impoverished central African nation faces an unprecedented security threat in a region that has seen increased jihadist activity over the past few years. Chad was hit by two jihadist attacks in the capital last year, while facing a constant threat of suicide attacks and raids.

To address the threats, Deby has tightened security while maintaining a strong presence in a regional force fighting the Nigeria-based Boko Haram Islamist group.

The country has scores of ethnic groups that speak more than 100 languages, and some of its conflicts have been blamed on divisions between Muslims, who make up 53 percent of the population, and Christians and animists.

Those tensions have also been fuelled by Deby handing top jobs to members of his Zaghawa ethnic group, whose members also largely head the country's feared army.

Ethnic resentment may be behind protests that erupted in February over the gang rape of a young woman, allegedly committed by the sons of several leading army commanders and officials.

Two youngsters were killed when security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

One of Deby's challengers, Mahamat Yesko Brahim -- the father of the rape victim -- stood down in favour of the president at the last minute.

The most prominent of Deby's challengers is Saleh Kebzabo, a Muslim from southwestern Mayo Kebbi province who first stood against him in 1996 and who heads the National Union for Development and Renewal.

Another high-profile runner is former premier Joseph Djimrangar Dadnadji, a Christian and one-time Deby ally.

"In the face of these accumulating challenges, Chadian authorities must avoid the politics of religious or geographic exclusion," the International Crisis Group said in March.

"The greatest threat to stability in Chad in the long-term... (is) a national political crisis."

Polls were to close at 6:00pm (17:00 GMT) and results may not be released for two weeks.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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