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Cameroon’s Polls: Praised by International Observers; Condemned by Opposition

International observers have given authorities in Cameroon a passing mark after monitoring the October 9 presidential election amid widespread opposition allegations of fraud, organizational lapses and elevated voter abstentions. Across the country, many say they expect no surprises. Incumbent President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, is widely expected to win another seven-year mandate.

The national electoral commission is busy compiling results of the ballots filed in from over 24,000 polling stations within the country and overseas, where Cameroonians residing abroad voted for the first time.

A final copy of tallied results will be submitted to the Supreme Court, which will formally announce the winner by October 24. In the meantime, the court is scrutinizing ten petitions lodged by candidates demanding either the partial or complete annulment of the results.

The petitions include diverse allegations including the failure to properly distribute all voter cards, the late opening of polling stations, multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing, the absence of indelible ink and the intimidation of voters.

A supporter of Cameroon President Paul Biya stands next to a giant election campaign ball in Yaounde, Cameroon, October 8, 2011.

A supporter of Cameroon President Paul Biya stands next to a giant election campaign ball in Yaounde, Cameroon, October 8, 2011.

Edith Kahbang Walla is leader of the Cameroon Peoples’ Party and one of the plaintiffs. She says she’s pushing for an urgent overhaul of the country’s electoral machinery.

"We have put in a request for cancellation of the election at the Supreme Court," she said. "We’re working with other political parties to see what other actions we need to take and we’re insisting on the need for immediate reform of the electoral system because we saw an electoral system that is simply not functional."

But even within the opposition, many argue the court lacks independence and is at the beck and call of the outgoing president. At the last election in 2004, eight such petitions were filed but were dismissed by the Supreme Court judges – all named by the president.

Joshua Osih is deputy vice president of the main opposition Social Democratic Front, the SDF.

"Well, it is not because the Supreme Court has its hands tied that we will not entertain them with the cases that we have on hand," he said.

The court will not consider any complaints until the winner is declared. However, once it does rule on a complaints, its decision can not be appealed.

And despite the opposition criticism of the election management body – Elections Cameroon, or ELECAM, international observers from the African Union, La Francophonie and the Commonwealth have given the election a passing grade.

Fred Mitchell, a former foreign affairs minister of the Bahamas, led the Commonwealth observer mission to Cameroon.

Cameroon’s Polls: Praised by International Observers; Condemned by Opposition

Cameroon’s Polls: Praised by International Observers; Condemned by Opposition

"We observed the fact that the election was conducted peacefully," said Mitchell, "that people felt no form of coercion to come out to vote, and although there were some administrative and logistical problems, we believe that there was a valued first effort to establish ELECAM as an independent acting body for elections. I think that is something that your country ought to be proud of."

But critics don’t agree. Many are holding ELECAM responsible for the shortcomings, including voter apathy levels considered to be the highest since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Cameroon in 1992. Over 7.5 million voters were expected at the polls Sunday for the one-round ballot, but a civil society organization, Un Monde Avenir, has revealed statistics indicating the turnout rate was below 35 percent, or only a little over 2.5 million.

Jean Simo, a resident of the largest city and commercial hub Douala, says he abstained because he was convinced 29-year-serving Biya and his ruling Cameroon Peoples’ Democratic Movement party, or CPDM, will win.

"In my opinion," he said, "nothing will change because our democracy is so advanced that before going to vote, we already know the results. It is certain that Mr Biya’s CPDM party will win the election. So I did not care to go out and vote because that will not change anything."

The outgoing 78-year-old Biya has won all three previous elections since 1990 amid opposition charges of widespread rigging. In 2008, he eliminated term limits from the constitution to seek reelection this year against a record 22 opponents in the single-round ballot.

Meantime, analysts say several factors have given Biya an edge over his challengers, including the fragmented nature of the opposition, the multitude of candidates and their thin public support as well as nationwide hegemony enjoyed by the ruling party.

Franklin Nyamsi, a political analyst and lecturer at the University of Rouen in France, says until the opposition forms a common block, political change through the ballot box will remain unfeasible. According to Nyamisi, Cameroonians have partly lost faith in elections because the opposition has proven to be irresponsible. He says the country needs a truly independent electoral commission to ensure change.

Others argue that the absence of a clear-cut plan of succession leaves the future of the country in doubt with the possibility that foreign powers, including former colonial master France, could impose a successor when the Biya era ends.