Voters in the Republic of Congo will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a president in a vote boycotted by the country’s main opposition party.
President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who ruled the oil-producing country of five million people for 36 years, is seeking a new five-year term. The outgoing 77-year-old faces six opposition challengers but is widely expected to win.
Nguesso was first president from 1979 to 1992, when he finished third in Congo’s first multiparty vote. But he regained power in 1997, following a brief civil war in which his rebel forces ousted then-president Pascal Lissouba, and has reigned since then.
He was elected in 2002 and again in 2009 for what would be his second and final seven-year term. But in 2015, Nguesso succeeded constitutional reforms who removed the 70-year age limit that would have prevented him from standing in the polls the following year. The referendum also removed the limit of two seven-year terms and introduced three five-year terms.
The 2016 polls were then followed by violence resulting in the deaths of at least 17 people after the opposition accused Nguesso, who harvested 67 percent of the votes cast, to rig the ballot. Two opposition figures, Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and Andre Okombi Salissa, were subsequently found guilty of “undermining the internal security of the State”.
“The lessons learned from the 2016 presidential election led the authorities to guard against any unpleasant surprises,” Alphonse Ndongo, a Brazzaville-based analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Nguesso will be re-elected, but the problems that people face on a daily basis will remain.”
At the end of January, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), the country’s main opposition party, said it had decided not to present a candidate for Sunday’s vote, arguing that the conditions were not conducive to polls and that an election would only lead to more divisions in the country.
Instead, UPADS – the party of the late Lissouba, which won the 1992 election – proposed a transition period and polls in 2023, with longtime Nguesso not on the ballot box.
More than 2.5 million people registered to participate in the election. The polls will open at 7:00 a.m. (6:00 a.m. GMT) and close at 5:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. GMT). Members of the security forces voted on Wednesday.
In the hope of overthrowing Nguesso, it is Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, head of the Union of Humanist Democrats. A trained economist and 61-year-old former minister, Kolelas finished far second with 15 percent voting in the 2016 elections. His father, Bernard Kolelas, was briefly Prime Minister of Congo in 1997 during the civil war.
Mathias Dzon, former Minister of Finance under Nguesso, also contests the election on the ticket of the Patriotic Union for National Renewal. The 73-year-old registered to participate in the 2009 poll, but withdrew days before polling day, alleging problems with the voter register. Dzon boycotted the 2016 vote, saying it would not be free and fair.
Albert Oniangue, evangelical pastor, is also looking for the first seat in the country. The former army colonel is a newcomer to the political scene, contesting the presidency for the first time and presenting himself as the candidate for change.
Three other candidates are also on the ballot: Joseph Kignoumbi Kia Mbougou, former member of UPADS; Anguios Nganguia Engambe and Dave Mafoula, who, at 38, is the youngest challenger.
But analysts and civil society leaders say the six candidates stand no chance of beating Nguesso.
“The election is organized by the Independent National Election Commission, which is anything but independent,” Fonteh Akum, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies, told Al Jazeera. “Decision [Labour] The party will continue to be in power and will govern through a divisive-reign tactic that it has perfected in 36 years, ”he added.
“This election is not considered an election that could bring about change. Since 2016, there has been a consolidation of power by the ruling Labor Party. Political space, especially for human rights activists, has shrunk. “
Joe Ebina, a human rights activist, also said the outcome of the vote was already predetermined.
“Congo is a dictatorship. It is impossible to have free and fair elections. Two former presidential candidates are in prison. Journalists and civil society leaders have also been jailed, ”Ebina told Al Jazeera. “There is no credibility in this election. Everyone knows that the president will win, ”he added.
The election comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic and falling energy prices have hit the oil-dependent Congolese economy, which contracted 8% last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Congo’s ever-growing debt burden is also weighing heavily on the economy. In 2019, the IMF estimated the debt at nearly $ 9.5 billion.
The presidential candidates have all pledged to improve the economy and lift more people out of poverty. According to the World Bank, 72 percent of the population in 2018 survived on less than $ 1.90 per day.
“The factories have closed and unemployment has skyrocketed. In addition, the scars of the civil war are still being felt in the granary region of the country, ”Akum said.
“But Nguesso learned his lesson when a struggling economy, unions and a dissident army forced his hand in 1992. Many unions and civilian groups have reportedly been compromised by now. Force and repression are also another way for him to continue to retain power, ”he added.
Corruption is another major issue, along with Transparency International ranking Congo 165 out of 180 countries in its 2020 corruption perception index.
In 2019, Global Witness, an anti-corruption campaign group, accused the president’s son, Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, of embezzling $ 50 million between 2013 and 2014.
The group also accused the president’s daughter, Claudia Sassou-Nguesso, of spending $ 7 million in public funds to buy a luxury apartment in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York City. The Nguesso family denies the allegations.
All the candidates, including Nguesso, have pledged to fight corruption.
“It’s hard to think that he [Nguesso] will change things in five years after ruling Congo for 36 years, ”said Ndongo, analyst in Brazzaville.
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