Polling stations have opened in Chad for a presidential election in which incumbent Idriss Deby is widely expected to extend his 30-year rule despite growing signs of popular discontent and criticism over his handling of oil wealth.
A key ally in the West’s campaign against armed groups in the Sahel region, Deby, 68, came to power spearheading the rebellion that overthrew longtime military ruler Hissene Habre in 1990.
He won elections in 1996 and again in 2001 before pushing through a constitutional change in 2018 that could allow him to stay in power until 2033.
He has relied on a firm grip over state institutions and one of the region’s most capable militaries to maintain power. He said recently he knew in advance that he would win again “as I have done for the last 30 years”.
Other candidates in Sunday’s election include 55-year-old former Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke, and Felix Nialbe Romadoumngar, 64, who is officially the “leader of the opposition” as his URD party has eight seats in the National Assembly.
Lydie Beassemda, 54, a former minister of agricultural production, is the first woman to run for president in Chad’s history.
Seven other candidates were rejected by the Supreme Court and three withdrew, including longtime opposition politician Saleh Kebzabo, who quit in protest over violence by the security forces.
Kebzabo and opposition leader Ngarlejy Yorongar pulled out of the race after a violent arrest attempt of another candidate, Yaya Dillo, in late February.
Opposition calls for boycott
Hundreds lined up as polling stations opened, according to Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from the capital N’Djamena.
“But the crowd is now smaller and has reduced with just a few people coming in and out,” Morgan said, adding that the opposition has called the 7.3 million people who registered to vote to boycott the election.
“They have called for people to march to the electoral commission to voice their agitation and frustration over the whole [electoral] process,” she said.
“Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both said that there was intimidation around the election campaign and that people were not free to express their opinion, especially opposition candidates,” Morgan added.
Protests against Deby’s administration have mounted since February with a coalition of NGOs, labour unions and opposition political parties calling for a change in political leadership and an end to social and economic injustices.
Authorities have “ruthlessly” responded with crackdowns on protesters, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.
On Thursday, the United States urged Chad’s election supervisors and courts “to ensure these elections are conducted freely, fairly, and transparently”.
The United Nations has called for an investigation after security forces went to arrest Dillo, a former minister in Deby’s government.
Dillo and other witnesses said security forces killed the politician’s mother and son and wounded several others. The government has said Dillo’s son was not killed in the raid.
Late on Thursday, the government said it had arrested several opposition politicians accused of planning “terrorist attacks” against the electoral commission’s headquarters and the ransacking of polling stations.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES