Outgoing Comoros leader Azali looks set to win new term
The tiny archipelago of Comoros went to the polls Sunday with President Azali Assoumani widely expected to win a new term in an election that rivals say has been hijacked.
Some 300,000 voters were to cast ballots at 731 polling stations but opposition groups soon cried foul after voting began at 8:00 am (0500 GMT), citing the ransacking of booths and other irregularities in the anti-Azali strongholds of Anjouan and Moheli islands.
Azali confirmed but played down sporadic incidents after voting at a school in Mitsoudje on the main island Grande Comore.”I’ve been told there have been some problems — it’s not a surprise,” said Azali.
“We were aware during the campaign there are some people who were not out there to win but to prevent the vote taking place.”The situation is under control”, he said, adding he was “confident” of winning.
An electoral commission official told AFP a dozen booths had been vandalised on Anjouan while witnesses said several stuffed ballot boxes had been found while some opposition poll assessors had been prevented from going about their duties.
“Given that my delegates have been prevented from entering polling stations … I shall never recognise the results,” said Mahamoudou Ahamada, candidate of opposition party Juwa after voting on Grande Comore.
“We need real change in this country, not empty words. We need peace, security and progress,” said Mohamed Chaine, 38, an early voter in the capital Moroni.
Allaoui Elarif, 70, warned: “It is afterwards, at the election commission, where I am afraid they will cheat.”
The Supreme Court has barred some of Azali’s major rivals from running, including former president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, accused of corruption.
The mainly-Muslim Indian Ocean archipelago of 800,000 people is one of the world’s poorest nations.
It has suffered more than 20 successful or attempted coups since gaining independence from France in 1975. Its first leader, Ahmed Abdallah, lasted barely a month before being ousted.
Azali is staging the poll after Comorans voted in a referendum to support the extension of presidential mandates from one five-year term to two, rotating among the three islands.
The controversial change shocked a fragile balance of power established in 2001 that sought to end separatist crises on Anjouan and Moheli and halt the endless cycle of coups.
The opposition fears that Azali, a native of Grande Comore and last elected in 2016, could hold power for 10 more years until 2029.
The referendum last July led to violent protests on Anjouan, which would have taken over the presidency in 2021.
The head of the Union of the Opposition group, former deputy president Mohamed Ali Soilihi, who was barred from running, was scathing.
“This election is a great masquerade. The plot has been written out in advance. On the evening of March 24, there’ll be an announcement of victory (for Azali) in the first round,” Soilihi predicted.
In Ahamada’s view, “If the vote were transparent, he couldn’t win. Azali has no choice but to steal the election.”
Azali, a former army chief of staff, first seized power in April 1999, toppling an interim president he saw as weak against secessionists and then was elected in 2002.
Earlier this month, according to his staff, Azali survived an attempt on his life on Anjouan.
The Comoros has tried repeatedly to lay claim at the UN General Assembly to the fourth and wealthiest island in their archipelago, Mayotte, whose inhabitants chose in a 1974 referendum to remain a French territory.The gap in development has drawn many Comoran “boat people” to Mayotte in search of a better life.
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