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    Polls Open in Gabon

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    Voters in Gabon are choosing a new president to succeed long-time ruler Omar Bongo.  Mr. Bongo died in June after 42 years in power.

    Former defense minister Ali Ben Bongo leads a crowded field of candidates in  Sunday's vote. The late president's son has the best-financed campaign, the support of security services, and the electoral infrastructure of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party.

    Bongo told VOA's French to Africa Service that he has the experience in both foreign and domestic affairs to provide strong leadership for Gabon.

    Bongo says he will bring peace and development to Gabon by more equitably distributing national wealth, most of which comes from oil revenues. Bongo is promising to improve education, nearly double the minimum wage and build more than 5,000 new homes a year.

    The nomination of the former president's son led to some divisions within the ruling party.

    Former Bongo prime minister Jean Ndong says past policies must change.

    Ndong told a pre-election rally that voters are going to choose the candidate for tomorrow and it is him, not because of his ethnicity but because he is simply the right candidate.

    Civil society groups urged government opponents to unite behind a single candidate. Ndong and several other candidates eventually withdrew to support former interior minister Andre Mba Obame.

    Former ruling-party official and minister of mining and petroleum Casimir Oye Mba took part in those talks to choose a single candidate but denied media reports that he had joined Ndong in dropping out of the race to back Obame.

    While maintaining his own candidacy, Mba says everyone knows that a single opposition candidate has the best chance of challenging the ruling-party.

    Civil society groups say opposition parties have failed to unite behind a single candidate because many believe they can win the election outright on their own. Even a small percentage of the vote could be enough to earn a candidate a ministerial post in the next government.

    Despite the support of some of his former rivals, Obame has not emerged as the leading opposition candidate because long-time challenger Pierre Mamboundou remains in the race. The Union of the Gabonese People candidate finished second to Omar Bongo in 1998 and 2005.

    After 42 years under Omar Bongo, Mamboundou says voters in Gabon do not want more of the same with his son Ali. Mamboundou says Gabon can not accept power passing dynastically from father to son. He campaigned on a platform of universal health coverage.

    Gabon's electoral commission has registered an improbable more-than-800,000 people for Sunday's vote. With fewer than one-and-a-half-million people, 40 percent of whom are below the age of 15, observers estimate the number of eligible voters could not be much more than 700,000.

    The government says local and international reporters may not speculate on results or voting trends and can only relay provisional returns announced by the interior ministry through state-run media.

    Interior Minister Francois Ndoungou says voters should return home Sunday and wait for the government to announce the winner. Several opposition candidates say they will take their supporters into the streets if there is any indication of vote rigging. Ndoungou says the government will use all forces at its disposal to put down any dissent to the official results.
     

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