The longtime president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, who is running for re-election after nearly 30 years in office looks poised to win in Sunday’s vote, though analysts say isolated unrest remains a possibility.
Biya has won all three previous elections since multiparty politics were reintroduced in Cameroon in 1990. On all those occasions, the opposition cried foul, alleging widespread fraud – but to no avail.
The presidential election is a single-round poll. The record 22 challengers in this election is likely to split the vote in Biya’s favor.
The president has been largely absent from the campaign trail, but his banners dominate the main highways and urban centers.
Election fever is steadily gaining momentum as the presidential aspirants crisscross the country, wooing the electorate and making unsustainable promises if elected. Biya has himself hit the campaign trail, with a first outing to Maroua in the country’s far north region.
Biya says, “We all have a vision of an emerging Cameroon. We laid out great ambitions in the last election in 2004, which are now becoming a reality”. He says he will make the realization of large infrastructure projects aimed at improving the lives of Cameroonians the focus of his next seven-year mandate.
But critics insist 30 years of Biya’s rule has left Cameroon in sluggish growth, prevalent poverty and chronic corruption despite its vast natural resources. Many say his likely reelection will not herald any substantial change. His highly centralized style of governing has weakened state institutions, analysts say, while affording a certain stability to the central African country despite its ethnic, religious and linguistic rifts.
Opposition parties failed to unite behind a single coalition in the last election in 2004. Biya won a landslide victory in that poll with more than 70 percent of ballots. His closest challenger, Ni John Fru Ndi, won only 17 percent.
Fru Ndi is again expected to be Mr. Biya’s key opponent. He heads the country’s lead opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, which backtracked on previous threats to boycott, and possibly disrupt, this election. Some say the change in strategy came too late to mobilize voters.
Opposition members continue to accuse the electoral commission of being pro-ruling party and have expressed concern about irregularities on voter lists. Fru Ndi has called on Cameroonans to protest if the elections are not free and fair.
However, Douala residents, like Maureen Ndi, says that they have little appetite for revolution.
“I’m not ready to join any demonstrations or protests,” said Ndi. “If the opposition has to protest the elections of the presidential election, I believe that the happenings in other countries like Ivory Coast, Egypt, Libya is still too fresh in our memories. If it has to happen here. It is going to be terrible, drawing to the fact that we have never experienced war. Cameroonans are suffering. We want peace.”
Ten days before the poll, unidentified gunmen in military fatigues blockaded a main bridge in the commercial capital, Douala. They exchanged gunfire with security forces and carried signs calling Biya a dictator and demanding he step down.
Just two days later, police arrested more than 100 protesters seeking independence for Cameroon’s English-speaking western regions.
West Africa analyst for consultancy group Control Risks, Roddy Barclay, said the elections are sure to be a “turbulent period” but that economic, rather than political, factors drive social unrest in Cameroon.
Though the election is likely to maintain the political status quo in the short term, Barclay and other analysts say uncertainty lies ahead for Cameroon when Biya does one day leave office.
More than 24,000 polling stations nationwide will open at 8am and close at 6 pm Sunday. This year marks the first time Cameroonians living overseas will participate in the presidential election. The Constitutional Council has two weeks to declare results after the polls.