The Republic of Congo on Sunday headed into a presidential election boycotted by the main opposition and attacked by critics as tilted towards veteran leader Denis Sassou Nguesso.
The 77-year-old is widely expected to win against six contenders, led by economist and 2016 presidential runner-up Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, who revealed Saturday that he is gravely ill.
Sassou Nguesso, a former paratrooper, first rose to power in 1979 and has since accumulated 36 years in office, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.
He is hoping for a first-round victory to secure a fourth term running the central African oil exporter.
“Rise up as one person… I’m fighting on my deathbed, you too fight for your change,” he urged supporters, saying the election was “about the future of your children” before replacing his mask.
Kolelas’ campaign did not say what illness had struck the 60-year-old, although his team said he could be transferred for treatment abroad even as voting takes place Sunday.
The runner-up in 2016’s presidential election, Kolelas is the only major candidate remaining to face Nguesso.
– Doubts and boycotts –
Congo’s Catholic Church episcopal conference has already expressed “serious reservations” about the ballot’s transparency and fears a possible internet shutdown on Sunday, as in the 2016 election.
The largest opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy or UPADS, is boycotting the poll.
UPADS — the group of former president Pascal Lissouba, who died in France last August — is the only opposition party to have a parliamentary group in the current national assembly.
Flanked by its giant neighbour the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, the former French colony has oil reserves and most of its budget comes from petroleum revenue.
But its economy is in a slump, hurt by a collapse in world crude oil prices, long-standing debt, and the pandemic, as well as being saddled with a reputation for corruption.
On the campaign trail, Sassou Nguesso has focussed on agricultural development and portrayed himself as a defender of Congo’s youth — the average age of the population of five million is just 19, according to UN figures.
After first coming to power in 1979, Sassou Nguesso was forced to introduce multi-party elections in 1991 and was defeated at the ballot box a year later.
But he returned to power in 1997 following a prolonged civil war.
He has won every election since, which the opposition have mostly slammed as fraudulent.
A constitutional amendment in 2015, which ended a ban on presidential candidates aged over 70 and scrapped a two-term limit, allowed Sassou Nguesso to run again a year later.
Two rivals who contested the 2016 results — former army general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and ex-minister Andre Okombi Salissa — were later jailed for 20 years, effectively sidelining the opposition.