Djibouti regime faces toughest poll challenge

2013-02-21 12:15
Ismael Omar Guelleh. (File, AFP)

Ismael Omar Guelleh. (File, AFP)

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Djibouti - The regime of President Ismael Omar Guelleh, in power in Djibouti since 1999, is up against its most serious threat in a decade at legislative elections on Friday for which opposition forces have united.

The tiny Horn of Africa country, with a population of less than one million, occupies a strategic position at the entry to the Red Sea and is home to the biggest French and US military bases in Africa.

This is the first poll since 2003 in which opposition groups have decided to join forces, taking part as the Union for National Safety (USN).

But Galleh's Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) holds all 65 seats in the parliament and he is determined that it keeps a firm grip.

A president, "if he is to be able to carry out his programme, needs a significant majority", said the 65-year-old president, who boasts of transforming Djibouti's infrastructure in his more than 13 years in charge.

Opposition groups put up a good challenge at the 2003 polls but have since then either refused to take part in elections, alleging the conditions for a free and fair poll were absent, or have done so independently.

Guelleh - only the second president since independence from France in 1977 - was re-elected for a third five-year term in April 2011 after the constitution was revised to allow him another stint in office.

He won the election, also boycotted by opposition parties, with more than 80 percent of the vote, promising it would be his last term.

Corruption and nepotism

But his party took as a wake-up call its unexpected defeat in the January 2012 municipal elections in Djibouti city - by far the biggest of the six constituencies - to an independent list fielded by the Rally for Development Action and Democracy, and despite an opposition stay-away.

For this week's legislative elections, various opposition parties have overcome their differences to line up behind a common programme focusing on human rights, developing independent media and fighting against "tribalism, corruption and nepotism".

But common platform or not, the opposition remains disparate. Its leader is a veteran politician aged 77, Omar Ahmed Youssouf. For Djibouti city, it is fielding Ismail Guedi Hared, 73, a former top aide to Djibouti's first president at independence, Hassan Gouled Aptidon.

Another opponent, Daher Ahmed Farah, who recently returned from exile has also joined forces with USN, which also reportedly has the backing of the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Djibouti escaped the wave of protests that swept away governments in several Arab countries over the past two years.

But it was rocked by a single day of anti-government protests on an unprecedented scale on February 18, 2011 that degenerated into violent clashes that left two people dead, according to official figures.

Djibouti, an arid and extremely hot country, derives most of its revenue from its port, from land rented out for the Western military bases as well as from livestock and the banking sector.

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