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Campaigning Underway for Cameroon Presidential Poll

  • Anne Look

Cameroon's President Paul Biya waves to supporters during the opening of his party conference, Yaounde, Cameroon, September 15, 2011.

Cameroon's President Paul Biya waves to supporters during the opening of his party conference, Yaounde, Cameroon, September 15, 2011.

Campaigning for presidential elections set for October 9 is off to a sluggish start in Cameroon.

A handful of candidates have organized rallies in the capital, Yaounde, and commercial hub, Douala, but turnout has been moderate.

Candidates say the government has not yet paid out campaign financing grants as it did for the last election in 2004.

Longtime President Paul Biya, of the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, faces a record 22 challengers, but is expected to win re-election. The presidential poll is a single-round election, so the large field of candidates could split the vote in the president's favor.

Voters say the poll holds little suspense.

Douala resident Jean Claude Simo said he will vote because it is his civic duty, but commented that he and others already know what the results will be. He said judging from the campaigning going on right now, the ruling party will win. He said he does not think the election will change much in Cameroon.

Biya's built-in lead

Biya has not yet hit the campaign trail, but his banners dominate the main highways and urban centers. Ruling party Secretary General Rene Emmanuel Sadi kicked off the incumbent's campaign on state TV with a focus on experience.

"A man of experience, a level-headed, wise, tolerant, competent and determined statesman. This exceptional man has a balance sheet which speaks for itself," said Sadi.

Biya has been in power since 1982. He eliminated term limits from the constitution in 2008, fueling protests that killed at least 40 people. Critics say that constitutional reform should have prevented him from running again.

Still, the country's fractured opposition has been unable to mount much of a challenge to Biya in the past. 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 reaches out

Fru Ndi is again expected to be Biya's key competition at the polls. He heads the country's lead opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, which has backtracked on previous threats to boycott, and possibly disrupt, this election.

Opposition members accuse the electoral commission of being pro-ruling party and have expressed concern about irregularities on voter lists.

Fru Ndi is currently on a nationwide campaign tour, and told VOA that this connection to the people defines his candidacy.

"I go to the people. I don't wait for the people to come to me. The SDF is the only party that has toured this country 16 times in the past, and we are going now on the 17th tour," said Fru Ndi. "So we are talking about a country we know. We are talking about a people we know. We are talking about people who know us."

If elected, Fru Ndi has pledged to decentralize the government and serve only three years of a seven-year term, as a time of transition for Cameroon following three decades of Biya's rule.

Cameroon has enjoyed a certain stability under Biya, but analysts say his stranglehold on power has left it with a weak political class and an uncertain future when the longtime ruler does leave power.

Ntaryike Divine Jr contributed reporting from Douala, Cameroon.