Gabon's ruling party set to win vote

2011-12-15 14:37

Libreville - President Ali Bongo's ruling party was expected to cruise to victory in Saturday's election in Gabon after a divided opposition failed to rattle the regime's decades-old grip on the oil-rich state.

For the first legislative polls since his father Omar died in 2009 after 41 years in power, Ali Bongo has campaigned on his economic achievements and the hosting of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

Inspired by the Arab Spring and a string of protest movements against long-standing rulers in sub-Saharan Africa, Gabon's opposition once looked like mounting a serious challenge.

The West African country's myriad opposition parties were adamant a few weeks ago that the election should not go ahead before the introduction of biometric polling material but their unity crumbled in the home stretch.

"Elections since 1996 simply haven't allowed the emergence of a credible opposition," Wilson Ndombet, a political analyst from Libreville's Omar Bongo University, said.

Push for democracy

He said that while the opposition has chronically failed to organise, Bongo's Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has carefully sabotaged any move that could challenge its almost absolute power.

"The PDG will never accept the idea of power-sharing. It is too accustomed to power," Ndombet said.

A number of ruling party dissidents joined opposition ranks in recent years in a bid to push for more democracy but the PDG old guard that once protected Omar Bongo's status as Africa's longest-serving leader won the day.

Gabon's most prominent opposition figure Andre Mba Obame, whose National Union party was dissolved in January after he proclaimed himself president, predicted that turnout would be at a record low.

"The elections won't be credible... I don't see turnout topping 20%. It'll be worthless, people won't show up," said Mba Obame, who is currently in South Africa for treatment.

The PDG and its allies hold 98 of the 120 seats in parliament and is not expected to lose much ground.

'Absentee politics'

The Union of the Gabonese People, whose historical leader Pierre Mamboundou died in October, eventually decided to field candidates in Saturday's polls after initially threatening to boycott.

"Our party has refused to play the game of absentee politics," said UPG secretary general Fidele Waura, adding that he hoped the election would improve the party's current representation of seven MPs.

A total of 746 000 people are registered to vote in Gabon, a country of 1.5 million inhabitants.

The country is sub-Saharan Africa's fourth largest oil producer and its GDP per capita would suggest that the Gabonese are among Africa's wealthiest people.

But despite the recent emergence of a middle class, disparities are huge with Libreville ranking among the world's most expensive cities and more than half of the population living under the UN's poverty line of two dollars a day.

Improving infrastructure

Bongo, 52, argues that his administration has done a lot to let the state's oil wealth trickle down to the population and improve infrastructure.

"The country has never seen so many construction sites," Libreville Mayor and former Prime Minister Jean-Francois Ntoutoume Emane said.

Gabon is co-hosting next year's African Cup of Nations with Equatorial Guinea and the event has spurred major investments.