The people of Gabon were voting Saturday whether to re-elect President Ali Bongo or bring to power a veteran politician riding on a promise to end a 50-year-old family dynasty.
The election in the oil-rich central African country followed an acrimonious campaign and persistent social unrest and the main opposition candidate cried foul just hours after polls opened.
Ex-African Union Commission chief Jean Ping alleged that a Constitutional Court decision on Friday had opened the way to possible fraud.
The court ruled that soldiers, traditionally Bongo supporters, could vote away from their bases. Ping’s campaign said that this could allow them to “vote several times in several polling centres.”
“We know the other side is trying to cheat. It is up to you to be vigilant,” Ping, 73, told reporters on Saturday.
“We are preparing to celebrate victory. You know that our opponents have been completely rejected,” said Ping as he cast his vote in Libreville.
Bongo, who has been president since 2009 when his father Omar died after 41 years in power, said he was “calm” as his countrymen went to the polls.
“I had a good night,” said the 57-year-old dressed in a light-blue shirt and dark blue jacket.
– Tighter race –
Campaigning was marked by months of bitter exchanges, including accusations, and strenuous denials, that Bongo was born in Nigeria and therefore ineligible to run.
On Friday, each side accused the other of buying up voter cards in various parts of the country.
Until recently, Bongo was the clear favourite, with several prominent politicians running against him and splitting the opposition.
But protracted negotiations led key challengers to pull out and back Ping, with the last of them withdrawing only last week.
“The best way to get rid of Ali and all his group of hangers-on is via the ballot box and that’s what I’ve done,” said Francoise Mba as she cast her vote in the second city of Port Gentil.
Another voter in Port Gentil, a 32-year-old man who gave his name only as Steve, said he had voted “to kick out this fake opposition which has no plans for the country.”
– All change –
Both candidates based their campaigns around a promise to break with the past.
Faced with repeated charges of nepotism, Bongo has long insisted he owes his presidency to merit and his years of government service.
His extravagant campaign was based around the slogan “Let’s change together”, playing up the roads and hospitals built during his first term.
In an overt jibe at Ping’s own long association with his father, Bongo also stressed the need to move on from the bad old days of disappearing public funds and dodgy management of oil revenues.
“There’s a risk that certain people who did so much harm to our country will come back” to power, the president told a crowd of thousands during his last rally in the capital, Libreville on Friday.
As well as having spent many years working for it, Ping also has close family ties to the Bongo dynasty: he was formerly married to Omar Bongo’s eldest daughter with whom he had two children.
Ping turned on Bongo in 2014, and in March he told French daily Le Monde that “Gabon is a pure and simple dictatorship in the hands of a family, a clan.”
For his part, Ping has pledged to deliver Gabon its first change of power and its second independence.
Ping has also undertaken to protect Gabon from “need and fear,” dismissing the president’s much-touted moves to diversify the economy into rubber and palm oil as mere window dressing.
– Ban urges ‘restraint’ –
The country of 1.8 million people has only known three presidents since it ceased to be a French colony in 1960.
One third of Gabon’s population lives in poverty, despite boasting one of Africa’s highest per capita incomes at $8,300 thanks to pumping 200,000 barrels of oil a day.
Youth unemployment runs at 35 percent according to the World Bank.
Recent months have seen growing popular unrest and numerous public sector strikes as well as thousands of layoffs in the oil sector.
Fears that this discontent might degenerate into violence are fuelled by memories of what followed Bongo’s contested victory in the 2009 presidential poll.
Several people were killed, buildings looted, a ceasefire imposed and the French consulate in Port Gentil torched.
On Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on candidates “to exercise restraint, abstain from any acts of incitement or the use of inflammatory statements, and maintain a peaceful atmosphere before, during and after the election.”
Results are expected within 72 hours of the polls closing at 1800 GMT.