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    Gabon Awaits Presidential Results

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    Three presidential candidates in Gabon all say they expect to be named the winner when counting Sunday's vote is completed.  Final results are expected Wednesday.

    Electoral Commission President Rene Aboghe Ella says he will meet with candidates early Wednesday to validate the returns.

    Ella says members of the ruling party and opposition parties as well as other government officials responsible for technical aspects of the vote and representatives of independent candidates are going to examine the results validated by each of nearly 3,000 polling stations.

    Three of the candidates say they already know the results: they won.

    Former Defense Minister Ali Ben Bongo, long-time opposition leader Pierre Mamboundou, and former Interior Minister Andre Mba Obame are all declaring victory.

    Bongo had the best financed campaign and the backing of the ruling party to succeed his father, Omar Bongo, who died in June after 42 years in power.

    Mamboundou says there is no way the late-president's son could be elected because he shares responsibility for what Mamboundou calls the previous government's misrule.

    Obame says he won about 55 percent of the vote and is waiting for the electoral commission to announce him as the official winner.

    Interim leader Rose Francine Rogombe is urging everyone to stay calm.

    She says it is important for people to maintain peace in the country and not be manipulated by losing candidates who might call them into the streets to protest.

    Security forces have stepped up patrols in the capital before the expected announcement of a winner.

    Initial reports from more than 300 electoral observers say the vote appeared to be mostly free and fair with some polling stations staying open late because they did not open on time.

    The biggest question surrounding the conduct of this vote appears to be the improbable number of voters registered.

    "If 40 percent of the population is below 15, and the voting age is 21 - we are not even talking of the percentages who are 15 and up to 20 - in a population of 1.5 million, it is impossible to get 800,000 registered voters no matter how you look at it," said Almami Cyllah, the regional director for Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

    With nearly two-dozen candidates campaigning for the presidency, this has clearly been Gabon's biggest step forward toward broad, multiparty democracy.  But Cyllah says the freedom to run does not ensure a fair vote.

    "If you see the number of candidates, you will say, 'Yes.  At least some people have now the right to run for office.'  But what does that mean if the commission or those charged with conducting the elections are not conducting the elections in a fair manner to represent the will of the people," said Cyllah.  "I think those are the questions we need to ask as we go along."

    Former interior minister Obame's television station was taken off the air Sunday by the National Communications Council because the station said it would carry live coverage of election returns.

    Local and foreign journalists in Gabon are prohibited from speculating about results or voting trends and may only report returns announced by the interior ministry on state-run media.

    The country's land and sea borders remain closed until midnight Thursday.

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