Libreville — Presidential elections have been fixed for 27 November in oil-rich Gabon, with security forces voting two days early in a move the opposition says is a ruse for rigging.
The president of the National Electoral Commission, Gilbert Ngoulakia, announced the double election dates of 25 and 27 November on state television and radio on Thursday. He explained that security forces would vote early in the interest of national security.
"The vote will be held two days after that of public agents who work to maintain law and order as strong agitation and tension are on the horizon," said Ngoulakia, reading a communique.
However leading opposition figure, Zacharie Myboto, denounced the move as a pre-emptive manoeuvre to ease ballot rigging.
"Here we have additional proof of laws being fiddled to keep the ruling regime in power," said Myboto, a onetime ally of President Omar Bongo who decamped to the opposition earlier this year.
"I strongly denounce this autocratic practice which has become common currency in Gabon over the last few years and is completely against the will of the Gabonese people who want to live in democracy, with free, transparent, just and credible elections," he said.
Although he is Africa's longest serving head of state, Bongo, who turns 70 in December, is hoping to secure another seven-year term at the helm. The president was to have stepped down this year, but in 2003 the constitution was amended by a parliament packed with allies to enable him to seek re-election indefinitely.
At a special meeting of parliament at the end of June, stacked to the advantage of Bongo's ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG), amendments were made to the electoral code that met an uproar from the opposition.
Changes ease rigging, opposition
Under the changes, military personnel will have to vote at their barracks. According to the opposition this will increase the chances of soldiers voting as they are told rather than as they choose.
As there is no separate voter list for the military and military personnel are not identified on the electoral register, this could enable some of Gabon's 250,000 soldiers to vote at barracks on 25 November and again in their home districts two days later, said Myboto.
He also warned that the two-day period between one vote and the next would be an ideal opportunity for widespread stuffing of ballot boxes.
The deadline for candidates to announce whether they will be running is less than a week away.
To date, only Bongo has confirmed his candidacy, though as the most prominent opposition figure, Myboto is widely expected to announce his plans to run in the coming days.
Once the deadline for candidates passes, campaigning will begin 30 hours later at midnight 13 October, according to Ngoulakia.
Bongo comes from the minority Bateke ethnic group near the Congolese border, but rose to Finance Minister in Gabon's first post-independence government.
When Gabon's first president, Leon M'Ba fell suddenly ill, Bongo was appointed Vice President and successor by M'Ba from his Paris deathbed in 1967.
Though multiparty politics was reluctantly adopted under international pressure in the early 1990s, Bongo has repeatedly said he favours authoritarianism in Africa, as he says it is better suited to dealing with ethnic loyalties.
According to the weekly newsletter, Africa Confidential, Bongo's 45-year-old son, Defence Minister Ali Bongo, is a strong contender to succeed Bongo.
The Minister of Interior meanwhile has deplored rising voter apathy in Gabon where many residents of the capital Libreville have already written off the forthcoming polls as a done deal.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]