Controversial Comoros president seeks third term in pollsThu, 11 Jan 2024 07:05:43 GMT

Voters in the Comoros choose a new president on Sunday with incumbent Azali Assoumani, who has already extended his time in office through constitutional change, voicing confidence of winning a third  consecutive term against a divided opposition.Nearly 340,000 people are eligible to vote in the predominantly Muslim Indian Ocean archipelago, whose population is under a million but nearly half live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.Known for vanilla and fragrant flowers used in luxury perfume, Comoros proclaimed independence in 1975 from France, which is home to a large diaspora.Several opposition figures have urged voters to boycott the ballot, in which five candidates are standing against 65-year-old Assoumani for the top job.Security will be beefed up for voting day and the army is on standby in case of disturbances but displays of political protest are rare.A demonstration organised by the pro-boycott camp for Tuesday was called off. “We received reports about the arrest of some of our members,” Ahmed Hassan El Barwane, general secretary of the opposition Juwa party told AFP.Since winning re-election in 2016, former army chief-of-staff colonel Assoumani — who currently holds the rotating chair of the African Union — has thrown opponents in jail or forced them into exile.Arch-rival and highly popular predecessor ex-president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi was handed a life sentence in November 2022 for high treason.In the same case, former vice-president Mohamed Ali Soilih, who lives in exile in Paris, was tried in absentia.Voters are also choosing governors in the polls, which open at 0500 GMT and close at 1500 GMT, with results expected in the following days.If no candidate wins outright, a second round is set for February 25.”It’s totally possible to get through in the first round,” Ali Mliva Youssouf, head of the pro-regime Alliance of the Presidential Movement coalition, told AFP.- Coup, constitutional change – Assoumani came to power in a 1999 coup, one of the many military takeovers that have rocked the islands.Describing himself as a “profound democrat”, he said he’d been forced to act to avoid civil war breaking out amid a separatist crisis at the time with one of the islands.In 2002, he won the presidential election for the Union of Comoros, which is made up of three semi-autonomous islands.Four years later, he reluctantly handed over to civilians and retired from politics for farming.But he returned with a bang in 2016, winning a vote marred by violence and allegations of irregularities. In 2019, he staged another round of elections after persuading Comorans to vote in a controversial referendum to support the extension of the presidential mandate from one five-year term to two. Since then, critics have accused Assoumani of creeping authoritarianism and denounced corruption, a failure to lift the country out of poverty and stop its youth emigrating.- ‘A hold-up’ -Several campaign gatherings have taken place in recent weeks but few electoral posters have been seen in the streets.The outgoing president is due to make a final campaign address on Friday in the capital Moroni.Amid fears of fraud, the opposition has already complained of irregularities with electoral lists, which have not yet been published.Assoumani won in the first round in 2019 with 60 percent, a result which was contested but eventually ratified by the courts.”The interior minister, the electoral commission and general staff are preparing to commit a hold-up on Sunday,” opposition candidate Mouigni Baraka Said Soilihi fumed.Voters also expressed concerns.”I want to be sure that no one votes in my place as was the case in 2019,” travel agency manager Tadjidine Said Abdallah told AFP.Forty-six-year-old teacher Widad Asnadi said people may as well not bother voting.”There’s no point people going out,” he said pessimistically.Many Comorans live abroad including around 300,000 in France and particularly in Mayotte, which was formerly part of the archipelago but has remained French.The Comoros’ supreme court last year refused to guarantee voting rights for the diaspora, of which one in three Comorans is a part.