Gabon casts first votes after dictator’s death

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Gabon ElectionsGabonese voted in a national election on Sunday to replace the late President Omar Bongo, who ruled for more than four decades and ran as the only candidate in many elections.

The election in West African country appeared to be peaceful, but a major opposition candidate ? one of 18 competing on the ballot ? withdrew from the contest, saying he feared postelection violence.

Election results are not expected until Wednesday, and the leading contender in Sunday’s race is the dead ruler’s son ? Ali Bongo Ondimba, the nominee of Gabon’s ruling party.

Candidate Cassimir Oye Mba resigned from the race Sunday afternoon, saying that he was worried the outcome of the election would cause violence. He did not support any of the remaining 17 candidates vying to replace Omar Bongo, who ruled for more than 41 years and ran as the only candidate in many elections. He died in June.

“I resign my candidacy because I do not want to be responsible for what will happen,” Mba said, without saying what he thought would cause violence.

Mba had quit the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party after it nominated Ali Bongo as its candidate.

Voters and officials echoed Mba’s concerns that the election could rock the tiny nation of 1.5 million people.

As Senate leader and interim President Rose Francine Rogombe cast a ballot Sunday morning, he urged Gabonese to “vote calmly, and then go stay at home. … Don’t take to the streets.”

Unlike many African nations, Gabon’s new president will not need to capture 50 percent of the vote to win.

Many of the candidates chose not to speak publicly on Sunday. Several of the candidates, including Ali Bongo, went to their remote home villages in rural Gabon to vote and could not be reached for comment.

Opposition candidate Bruno Ben Moubamba, 42, who went on a two-week hunger strike to protest what he called an “electoral coup d’etat” by Ali Bongo and the ruling party, said he expects riots if that candidate wins.

“Ali Bongo can’t even win 5 percent of the vote in his native village,” he said. “After 41 years, people are tired. They want a change. We are in a situation of latent violence. It’s as if the whole country has been drenched in gasoline. All we need is one match.”

Moubamba has said that the 816,000-person voter list is inflated. Citizens’ groups have collected evidence they say shows some voters were issued multiple voter registration cards.

Election Commission President Renee Aboghe Ella acknowledged the voter list appeared inflated, but said other safeguards would prevent people from voting more than once. He also expressed concern that a winner may be declared without securing a majority.

“It could create a problem of legitimacy,” he said, noting that the former president always got more than 50 percent. “It’s the first time that we find ourselves in this situation.”

Some citizens were excited by the possibility of actually choosing their new leader.

“It’s my first time voting, and I need to vote,” said 23-year-old Jacques Koumba, who voted at Kingulele Public School in the capital, Libreville. “I need to make up for the past 40 years.”

Before Mba’s resignation, the election appeared to be a contest between the 50-year-old Ali Bongo and four opposition candidates.

As part of his campaign, Ali Bongo installed posters of himself every 30 feet (9 meters) on the capital’s main highway and crisscrossed the country in a private jet to campaign.

Pierre Mamboundou, who has been at the vanguard of the opposition for 20 years and was once exiled to Senegal after the elder Bongo accused him of plotting a coup, was seen as an attractive choice to those calling for wholesale change.

Other leading candidates included former Interior Minister Andre Mba Obame, who has been a member of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party and is backed by five independents who dropped out of the race.

But some voters said they were dissatisfied with their choices and held little hope for change in Gabon, where one-third of the 1.5 million population lives in poverty so dire that some Libreville residents dig through trash to feed their children.

Much of the rest of the country is cut off from Libreville by thick jungle and is reachable only by plane.

“Why vote when our life conditions are not going to change?” said Rolande Boelingui, 27, after voting in the city’s 4th district. “We are still hungry. All the candidates are making the same promise. But they never make good on their promises.”

Gabon was a leading oil producer in the 1970s. The elder Bongo is accused of wasting the oil wealth by building vanity projects such as a massive, marbled presidential palace and a little-used trans-Gabon railroad, instead of basic infrastructure.

He was also criticized for holding onto power for decades, running uncontested in some elections and dismissing allegations of fraud in others.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.