BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — Republic of Congo’s president, who has ruled the Central African country for more than 30 years, is expected to cruise to re-election Sunday in a vote five months after a constitutional referendum removed term and age limits that would have barred the 72-year-old leader from running again.
Officials have closed the country’s land borders for Sunday’s vote and the government has ordered telecommunications services to be blocked for two days. The run-up to the referendum was marred by violence which the president’s critics denounced as a “constitutional coup.” The official death toll was three, though opponents say the number of demonstrators killed in clashes with security forces was likely higher.
Denis Sassou N’Guesso first became president in 1979, remaining in office until he lost the country’s first multi-party election in 1992. He came to power again in 1997 after his rebel forces ousted the president. He was elected in 2002 and then again in 2009 for what was to be his second and final seven-year term.
Last October, however, about 92 percent of voters approved constitutional changes to permit Sassou N’Guesso to run again.
In holding the referendum, Sassou N’Guesso joined the ranks of other African leaders who have recently tried to get around constitutional term limits. Burundi descended into violence last year after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a third term widely seen as unconstitutional. He managed to stay in power, but Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore was toppled in a popular uprising in 2014 when he tried to change the constitution to prolong his time in office.
Rwanda last year also approved constitutional changes to allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term while opponents of Congolese President Joseph Kabila are worried he may stay on after his mandate expires at the end of this year.
More than 2 million people are eligible to vote in the Republic of Congo election pitting Sassou N’Guesso against eight challengers.
At his final campaign rally on Friday, Sassou N’Guesso said he was confident he’d earn more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, thereby avoiding a runoff. “During my campaign across the country, people have been demanding my re-election,” he said.
But the president’s opponents say the electoral commission is working for the government. Residents of the capital said this week they are about insecurity during the vote.
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