Polls Close in Gabon



Voters in Gabon are awaiting the results of an election to choose a new president to succeed long-time ruler Omar Bongo.   Mr. Bongo died in June after 42 years in power.

Electoral observers say that Sunday's vote appeared to draw a big turn-out.  While there are no early official estimates of voter participation, witnesses say most of the nearly 3,000 polling stations were more crowded than during the last presidential election in 2005.

Most voters appeared to heed the instructions of Interior Minister Francois Ndoungou to return home on Sunday and wait for the government to announce the winner.

Ndoungou says it has been a transparent vote because all candidates and parties were free to station electoral observers at all of the polling stations.

Former Defense Minister Ali Ben Bongo led a crowded field of candidates.  The late president's son had the best-financed campaign, the support of the security services and the political infrastructure of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party.  He promised to improve education, nearly double the minimum wage and build more than 5,000 new homes a year.

Several opposition challengers dropped out of the race and had their ballot papers withdrawn to support the candidacy of former Interior Minister Andre Mba Obame.

Civil society groups urged government opponents to unite behind a single candidate as the best chance to bring change to Gabon.  But despite the small swing to Obame, there were still more than a dozen candidates running on their own.

Even a small percent of the vote could be enough to earn a candidate a ministerial post in the next government.

Long-time challenger Pierre Mamboundou remains the chief opposition to the ruling party.  The Union of the Gabonese People candidate finished second to Omar Bongo in 1998 and 2005, and says Gabon can not accept power passing "dynastically" from father to son.

Interim President Rose Francine Rogombe said the vote is the start of the transition to a new government.

Ms. Rogombe urged voters to remain calm and vigilant.  Only one candidate will win, and she said people should not be dragged into demonstrations against the results by any of the losing candidates.

According to the electoral commission, more than 800,000 people registered to vote in a county with fewer than 1.5 million people - 40 percent of whom are below the age of 15. Observers estimate the true number of eligible voters at not much much more than 700,000.

Local and international journalists are prohibited from speculating about results or voting trends and may report only returns announced by the Interior Ministry on state-run media.

Land and sea borders remain closed until Thursday evening. 

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