Congo voters set to endorse ruling party

2012-07-13 12:10

Brazzaville - Allies of the Republic of Congo's longtime President Denis Sassou Nguesso look set to retain an absolute majority when voters head to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections.

More than two million people are eligible to vote in the first round of the poll in the oil-rich west-central African country, which has been open to multi-party politics since 1991 but wracked by two civil wars in which Sassou Nguesso, an army colonel, played a prominent role.

The last parliamentary elections in 2007 were marred by irregularities and fraud denounced by observers from the African Union, which is sending about 30 observers to monitor the weekend poll, as is the Economic Community of Central African States.

More than 1 200 candidates, including 124 women, are competing for the 136 seats in the National Assembly. There will be no voting in three Brazzaville constituencies affected by massive explosions in a munitions dump on March 4, which claimed about 300 lives, because the electoral rolls have not been revised there.

A second round of voting is due on August 5.

Sassou Nguesso first became head of state in 1979. His deeply entrenched Congolese Labour Party (PCT), with 136 candidates, intends to keep the 48 seats it holds in parliament, where it has established a dominant role through alliances formed with smaller parties and "independent" MPs who are close to it.

The opposition holds just 12 seats.

Since the start of the campaign, non-governmental organisations have denounced the use by Sassou Nguesso's supporters of the machinery of state, especially the public media, at the expense of their rivals.

"More than 90% of the messages issued on these media come from PCT candidates who display large financial and material resources," noted Maixent Hanimbat of the Forum for Governance and Human Rights.

To confront the PCT, the main opposition party with 11 seats, the Panafrican Union for Social Democracy, is putting up 70 candidates.

The party was formerly that of  ex-president Pascal Lissouba, ousted in 1977 by Sassou Nguesso, who later proclaimed himself president.

The Union for the Republic and Democracy (UDR-Mwinda), led by a former interim leader, Andre Milongo (1991-1992), hopes to do better than in 2007, when it won only one seat.

An opposition coalition that boycotted the 2007 polls, the Alliance for the Republic and Democracy, will be represented by about 70 candidates in Sunday's vote.

Finally, a former rebel movement, the National Council of Republicans (CNR), headed by Frederic Bintsamou, alias Pastor Ntumi, is fielding 20 candidates in the Pool region south and west of the capital, considered the CNR stronghold.

"The authorities want to keep a majority in the assembly by all means. That would enable ... a modification of the constitution to allow President Sassou Nguesso to stand again in 2016," after his two currently authorised mandates have expired, said Clement Mierassa of the Congolese Opposition Front of Parties.

"The PCT candidates are mostly ministers ... and even heads of the boards of governors of the biggest companies," a Congolese observer said, asking not to be named.

"From the beginning of the campaign, the people have been behind them to get a T-shirt or a present. If it's the same until polling day, these candidates have a strong chance of winning."

The Republic of Congo is located to the west of its much larger neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.