Gabon’s President Ali Bongo is looking to extend his family’s rule past the 50-year mark by winning a second term in an election Saturday, but a last-minute pact between feuding opponents has given the race a measure of suspense.
Bongo, 57, has long sought to emerge from the shadow of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the central African country of 1.8 million people for 41 years until he died in 2009.
His strongest opposition comes from Jean Ping, a former chair of the African Union Commission who managed to get several other high-profile opposition figures to support his candidacy after months of wrangling.
But there are still a total of nine challengers in the race and Gabon does not have a runoff system, meaning Bongo does not have to top 50 percent to secure re-election.
The campaign period has been tense, with Bongo accusing the opposition of inciting violence by claiming he plans to steal the vote.
At a rally Tuesday, he described Ping’s opposition coalition as “a gathering of witches” who “want to bring back the old system, the system of privileges”. Ping and several of his top allies served in high-level positions under Omar Bongo.
Ping, meanwhile, has said an Ali Bongo victory would mean continued economic inequality that prevents ordinary citizens from benefiting from Gabon’s oil wealth, which has shrunk amid a slump in global oil prices.
“You have before you two choices. Life and death. If he wins, you choose death. If we win, you choose life,” Ping told supporters at a rally over the weekend.
The campaign period has been marked by months of bitter exchanges between the two camps, including accusations, and strenuous denials, that Bongo was born in Nigeria and therefore ineligible to run.
Ping’s own roots – he is Sino-Gabonese – served as ammunition for Bongo’s camp, which has suggested he and his son are secretly serving Chinese interests.
The two rivals go back a long way, having worked for years together under Bongo senior, who was responsible for getting Ping his job as chairman of the African Union Commission.
Ping also has close family ties to the Bongo dynasty: he is the father of two children by Ali’s sister.
He turned on Bongo in 2014, and in March he told French daily Le Monde that “Gabon is a pure and simple dictatorship in the hands of a family, a clan.”
More than 600,000 voters are registered to participate in Saturday’s vote, and provisional results are expected early next week.
Fears that the results will deliver unrest are fuelled by memories of the violence that followed Bongo’s 2009 victory against Andre Mba Obame.
Several people were killed, buildings looted, a ceasefire imposed and the French consulate in the economic capital Port-Gentil torched.