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Opposition, Security Forces Clash in Djibouti During Presidential Election

In the Horn of Africa country of Djibouti, opposition protesters clashed with security forces Friday during presidential elections, in which the incumbent seeking re-election is the only candidate. Opposition leaders pulled out of the race, which they said was marred by irregularities.

As voters trickled to polling stations in the capital, Djibouti City, Friday, police fired tear gas at hundreds of stone-throwing protesters.

Eyewitnesses say the scuffle began when security forces arrived at the headquarters of the country's main opposition party to break up a noisy demonstration by about 500 people.

Ismail Omar Guelleh
Calling the uncontested election "a farce," the protesters urged Djiboutians to boycott the poll, which is certain to re-elect incumbent President Ismail Omar Guelleh for a second term in office.

About 160,000 of the country's 700,000 residents were registered to vote.

Mohamed Daoud Chehem is a prominent opposition leader who, like other candidates, pulled out of the race, complaining of government harassment and lack of transparency.

Multi-party politics was introduced in Djibouti in 1992, after international pressure forced then-President Hassan Gouled Aptidon - President Guelleh's uncle - to give up 15 years of absolute rule.

Mr. Chehem says, in contrast, President Guelleh, who was first elected in 1999, has faced little international criticism or scrutiny, even though the Djiboutian leader has been repeatedly accused by opponents of attempting to re-establish one-party rule in the former French colony.

In parliamentary elections held two years ago, the opposition claimed widespread vote-rigging, after President Guelleh's Union for Presidential Majority coalition won all 65 seats.

"This government completely ignores democracy and human rights. It only knows how to do things by force," Mr. Chehem said. He warns that such a government can only bring destruction and more suffering to a country, which is already one of the poorest countries in the world.

In a recently released human rights report, the State Department did criticize the government in Djibouti for having a poor human rights record and for trying to limit the rights of Djiboutians to change their government.

But a Horn of African expert at the University of South Africa, Iqbal Jhazbhay, says he believes the international community has been reluctant to punish the Djiboutian government, which in recent years has proven to be a cooperative partner in a number of areas.

Mr. Jhazbhay says that the government has promoted stability in the Horn of Africa by establishing better relations with its neighbors, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland. It has also allowed France to maintain a significant military presence in Djibouti, and, in 2002, the government also gave the United States a strategic base in Djibouti for conducting anti-terrorism operations.

"There has been much more focus and attention on specific areas of concern, such as Zimbabwe and Iraq," he said. "Whereas, you find a very jaundiced view towards Djibouti. A number of states have found themselves in a difficult situation of promoting their own policy of democracy, [and,] at the same time, having key military bases there. I get the sense that French foreign policy, but more particularly U.S. foreign policy, has been trying to advance democratic norms [in Djibouti] by supporting civil society organizations. But, equally, there is a need to strengthen opposition political parties, which, by and large, are very weak within the continent."

President Guelleh says having no opponents run against him does not mean the election process was flawed. He insists the candidates dropped out of the race because they were, in his words, "afraid to engage in battle."

The president has also pledged to step down after his second, six-year term, as the constitution requires him to do.