Comoros votes as controversial president seeks third termSun, 14 Jan 2024 07:07:40 GMT

Comoran voters were headed to polling stations Sunday to decide whether to hand a third-straight term to President Azali Assoumani, who has voiced confidence in securing re-election over a divided opposition on the Indian Ocean archipelago.In the rain-drenched capital Moroni, several stations were waiting for poll staff and still displaying their electoral lists after 7:00 am (0400 GMT), when they were due to open. Gendarmes and police had been deployed and were waiting for the first voters to arrive. “The vote hasn’t begun because we are waiting for the equipment to set up the voting booth,” the head of one station near the medina told AFP.Elsewhere, voters slowly began casting their ballots, AFP journalists reported. Polls are open until 6:00 pm (1500 GMT).Assoumani, in power since 2016, extended his time in office through a controversial constitutional referendum in 2018 that removed presidential term limits.Several opposition figures have urged voters to boycott the election, in which five candidates are standing against 65-year-old Assoumani for the top job.Critics have accused him of jailing opponents or forcing them into exile — his arch-rival and highly popular predecessor, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, was handed a life sentence in November 2022 on charges of high treason.Suspicions of fraud have emerged due to the late publication of voting lists, with opposition leaders saying that many voters were still not sure where they are supposed to vote.”We are challenging the improper nomination of voting station staffers, who are all supporters of the ruling party,” Latuf Abdou of the opposition Juwa Party told AFP.Nearly 340,000 people are eligible to vote in the predominantly Muslim nation, which declared its independence from France in 1975 and where 45 percent of the population of roughly 900,000 lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.The army was ready to intervene in the event of trouble. But outright protests are rare on the country’s three islands, and Assoumani’s supporters are hoping for a repeat of the 2019 ballot, when he was elected in the first round with 60 percent of the vote. “Power is given by God,” Assoumani told supporters at his final campaign rally on Friday.- Economy woes -“I want peace, and that there is no trouble on voting day,” Fatima Mbae, a 36-year-old vendor at the Volo-Volo market in Moroni, told AFP a few days before the vote.”The elected president must then take care of young people, many are out of work. He needs to bring in foreign companies that can hire our youths,” she said.An estimated 300,000 Comorans have emigrated to France, but they are once again not allowed to vote in the presidential contest despite regular promises by the authorities.Remittances from the diaspora totalled over 20 percent of the archipelago’s GDP in 2022, according to the World Bank.”We have a hard time feeding ourselves,” said Antufia Ali, a cleaning woman and mother of three. “I’m paid 130 euros ($142) a month and I can’t manage — I’d like to see food prices go down,” she told AFP.Voters are also choosing governors in the polls. Provisional results may be available as soon as Monday according to the CENI electoral commission. If no presidential candidate wins outright, a second round is set for February 25.Security will be beefed up for voting day and the army on standby in case of disturbances, and some civil society groups have said they will deploy observers at voting stations to “protect” the ballot.