Johannesburg — An Islamic leader has topped the list of three candidates that will compete in May for the presidency of the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros.
Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, popularly known as 'Ayatollah', won 23.7 percent of the votes, according to a spokesperson for the African Union Mission for Support to the Elections in the Comoros (AMISEC).
Mohamed Djaanfari, a former officer in the French military, now local transport tycoon and vice-president of the national assembly, came second with 13.1 percent, followed by Halidi Abderemane Ibrahim, seen as the preferred candidate of the outgoing federal administration, with 10.37 percent.
"These elections are very important, first of all because they are perceived to be a crucial step in a long process of national reconciliation, and this is the first election under the new constitution - after the election of 2002 - that really allows what was decided on the rotational presidency to be applied," said the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Comoros, Giuseppina Mazza.
Aimed at breaking the cycle of coups and political strife that have characterised the political landscape of the three islands Union since they won independence from France in 1975, the elections are seen as Comoros' first real test of democracy.
A fragile power-sharing agreement, brokered in 2001 by the African Union's (AU) predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, gave the individual islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli their own semi-autonomous government and president, with a rotating presidency for the Union.
The Union presidency now moves from Grand Comore to Anjouan, so first-round voting on Sunday was reserved for Anjouan's 117,000 voters, who narrowed down 13 presidential hopefuls to the three candidates. They will stand in a national election scheduled for 14 May, when the total Comoros population of 670,000 will select one of them as the next Union president.
The president will have a four-year mandate, after which the torch is passed to the island of Moheli in 2010.
Results were delayed by the constitutional court - the highest electoral body - over contested results by a number of candidates who recommended that votes from 20 polling stations be withheld. The court has 72 hours to validate and announce the results.
According to the AMISEC spokesman, "of the 221 polling stations, 213 were taken into account; seven were declared void; voter turnout was 54.87 percent".
Francisco Madeira, the AU special envoy to the Comoros and AMISEC chief, noted that "there were terrible delays in Niumakele [on Anjouan] - in some places there, the elections could not start until one o'clock in the afternoon".
"These [polling] stations were kept open longer, so everyone who wanted to vote should have been able to do so," the AMISEC spokesperson explained.
Given the archipelago's history of political violence and instability, Comoran security forces were confined to their barracks and the AU sent a 462-strong force to oversee the electoral process.
"There has always been a question of confidence between the islands [that make up the Comoros]. There is mistrust between the islands, so it is important to build legitimate security to ensure the electoral process goes well," an official at the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs told IRIN.
Voting day proceeded peacefully and incidents were limited to allegations of ballot fraud, delays at some polling stations and one death: the result of a political discussion between friends that got out of hand.
The two men "had known each other for a long time and were in an argument over the candidates they support - one of them beat the other to death," Madeira said.
The Comoran civil service is perceived as being rife with corruption, and the candidate who wins the election on 14 May will inherit a legacy of mistrust of political figures.
"I don't really care who wins, as long as things change - we need a new government that can stop corruption, look forward and bring real development for the people," one voter said as he waited in line to cast his ballot. "He will need to be a snake to weave through the different powers and interests in the political system."
According to one political analyst, "with the political administration in the capital [Moroni, on Grande Comore] it will be very difficult for the new president to have 'real' power, because he is from another island. All the people in public administration and institutions are from Grande Comore - the new president will have to create more balance in the civil service, in terms of representation from all three islands".
In the system of semi-autonomy for individual islands under a Union umbrella, Comoros does not only have four presidents, it has four systems of armed forces too. "Each island has its own armed security, and the Union armed forces are not accepted by all the islands. It is very difficult for them to do their job," he commented.
Some analysts have noted that future stability will require curbing the military's power. But according to a local diplomat, "it's more a challenge of the Union security forces being recognised by the individual islands, because the tendency of independence [by the islands] has led to multiplication ... the question is how to bring them together".
Another challenge, Mazza said, would be to implement and sustain the poverty reduction strategy presented to donors, the international community and the private sector at a conference in December last year, which attracted $200 million in pledges to support the action plans derived from the poverty reduction strategy.
"This was a good sign, and shows the increasing confidence the international community has in the future of the Comoros. Now it is important to affirm the vision in the strategy; to translate it into operational programmes and mobilise the money that was promised, according to the priorities that were settled," Mazza remarked.
"The country needs to invest in health, education, improve roads and general infrastructure, improve productivity in rural areas, etc," she said. "How to concretise this, how to further develop the programmes, enhance the national management capacity, and strengthen partnerships and build on a successful election to finally have the benefits, for the Comoros, of a long process - that is the challenge."
In a message to the international donors' meeting, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that "the presidential elections have the potential to be a true milestone in the country's transition from instability, provided they are conducted in an open, fair and democratic manner".
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]