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Cameroon's Long-Time Leader Likely to Win Re-Election Sunday

  • Anne Look

Cameroon President Paul Byia (file photo)

Cameroon President Paul Byia (file photo)

Cameroon votes Sunday in a presidential election that longtime president, Paul Biya, looks poised to win, though analysts say isolated unrest remains a possibility.

The incumbent's victory seems a foregone conclusion in the face of a fractured opposition and high voter apathy.

President Biya has been in power since 1982 and won every election since the country moved to multi-party democracy in 1992. The presidential election is a single-round poll, so 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.

Speaking in Maroua in the far North Thursday, Biya says "we all have a vision of an emerging Cameroon". He says "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 Cameroonans the focus of his next seven-year mandate.

During his 29 years in power, analysts say Biya has proven adept at out-maneuvering his political opponents. 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 oponent. 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."

Biya eliminated term limits from the constitution in 2008 to pave the way for his re-election bid, fueling protests over high food prices that killed at least 40 people. Popular frustration over high unemployment and spiraling living costs continues to fester. Tensions have already flared during campaigning.

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.

"There are certainly a lot of grievances in the community but I don't think that is going to lead to an outbreak of national unrest," said Barclay. "It will however lead to localized protests which have the potential to turn violent. The government is acutely aware of the potential for popular unrest. It has seen what has happened in North Africa and also in Burkina Faso, and I think it will deploy security forces en masse to mitigate against the threat of popular unrest."

Barclay said Biya has also taken other measures to head off tensions, including putting subsidies on common foodstuffs and fuel, as well launching a recruitment drive to hire 25,000 youth into the public sector.

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.

Polls close Sunday at 6 p.m. local time, after which the Constitutional Council has two weeks to declare results.

Ntaryike Divine Jr. contributed reporting from Douala, Cameroon.