Gabon holds first vote since violence-marred 2016 election

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Oil-rich Gabon, ruled by the same political dynasty for nearly half a century, votes on Saturday in long-delayed legislative and municipal polls after a presidential election two years ago that was marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud.

The controversial re-election of President Ali Bongo in August 2016 by just a few thousand votes led opposition leader Jean Ping to claim that victory had been stolen from him.

Violence broke out and dozens of people were killed according to the opposition, but the government says only four died.

Ping's headquarters was bombed and the opposition also claimed that widespread human rights abuses were committed by armed militias that took to the streets.

But ahead of this weekend's vote, pushed back three times since 2016, the campaign was low key.

Posters dotted the capital Libreville asking the country's 680 000 voters to turn up to elect 143 new MPs as well as other local officials.

'Torn by crisis'

Political divisions run deep in the equatorial African nation, ruled by Omar Bongo since 1967 and by his son Ali after Bongo's death in 2009.

And Gabon's oil-dependent economy has been hit by falling crude prices.

"I am not sure that this election will ease tensions because since 2016, the country has been torn by a crisis that has divided families and changed the political scenario," said political expert Wilson Andre Ndombet.

The opposition, which rallied around Ping in 2016, is now fractured, easing the way for the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) which too is facing party in-fighting.

Ping, a veteran diplomat who once headed the African Union Commission and held senior UN posts and describes himself as the elected president, has so far not commented on Saturday's election.

He was a stalwart in Omar Bongo's government.

Some opposition parties have called for a boycott but the others are contesting the vote.

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"There is no real opposition in Gabon," said Gabin Yalanzele from the ruling PDG.

A supporter of a party of an opposition figure who has now entered the government, said he was not given money to hand out to people who turned up for election rallies but added: "We simply offer free T-shirts or a meal."

"The party in power certainly has access to some facilities but there are opposition figures who are rich and who just stall the country's progress," said Chadi Moukarim, who is second on the list for a local seat in Libreville.

A Libreville resident, who identified himself as just Steven, said the ruling party and the opposition were "buying consciences" with T-shirts and other goodies.

"The electoral process has always been biased," said Ndombet, adding that "officials manning voting stations were bought" by the ruling party.

The government has said it will close the country's borders on polling day and ban alcohol sales on the eve of the vote and throughout Saturday.

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