This article is part of our special report Elections in the Republic of Congo.
Denis Sassou Nguesso is widely expected to extend his nineteen-year grip on the Congolese presidency during elections on Sunday (20 March), despite international concerns about the fairness and transparency of the poll.
A survey by French public opinion gatherer TNS put Sassou Nguesso on 67%, compared to 8% for his nearest challenger. Communications Minister Thierry Moungalla said there were “indicators on the ground that the President will win on the first round”.
72-year-old Sassou Nguesso has led the country for a total of 32 years, since first entering office in 1979. After finishing third in an election in 1992, Sassou Nguesso regained power in 1997, after a brief civil war, and then went on to win elections in 2002 and 2009, although the latter was strongly criticised by international observers.
Eight other candidates are standing against Sassou Nguesso in the first round of voting, including former army chief General Jean-Marie Mokoko, but complain that the short campaign period – the elections were originally scheduled for July – had given them little time to organise.
The Congolese people backed a series of amendments to their national constitution in a referendum in October, including the removal of a 70-year age limit and a ban on presidents serving more than two terms. The revised constitution also established an independent electoral commission and a single ballot system.
The European Union decided not to send an election observation mission in February, with the bloc’s foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, stating that the revised Congolese constitution could create “judicial insecurity and therefore do not appear to (guarantee) a democratic, inclusive and transparent presidential election”.
The EU had earlier warned that the October referendum “threatened the stability of the country”, and has expressed concern about the treatment of opposition members before and after the elections.
Contacted by EURACTIV, the EU Ambassador to the Republic of Congo, Saskia De Lange declined to comment on the election process ahead of polling day.
For its part, the African Union hurriedly put together a delegation of around 40 people to observe the election, while the 57-member Organisation internationale de la Francophonie has also sent an observation mission.
At a campaign press conference on Thursday (16th March), Moungalla maintained that the election process had been fair. “It seems that the Opposition are predicting that any result that does not give them victory or a second round must have been cheated,” he said, adding that “it is not fair play or democracy to say that the winner of the game did not win”.
Moungalla and health minister Bienvenu Okiemy accused opposition supporters of inciting violence and riots, with Okiemy attacking critics from the international community.
“All those people who pretend to belong to the international community should not be inciting people to riot,” he said, accusing them of “ignorance of our country and Congolese people.”
“On March 20th, we will find out the degree of confidence the Congolese people have in each candidate,” he said, adding that “Congo has chosen stability after war”.
Campaigning has been largely peaceful, although opposition candidates have complained of difficulties in organising election rallies. Sassou Nguesso will conclude his campaign with a rally in Brazzaville on Friday (18 March), expected to be attended by over 50,000 people.
At a rally on Thursday (17 March), supporters of opposition candidate Guy Brice Parfait Kollelas, a former minister in Sassou Nguesso’s government who opposed the changes to the constitution, urged the international community to intervene.
“Francois Hollande and Barack Obama take pity on the Congolese,” they told euractiv.com.
Over 60% of the Congolese economy comes from the oil industry, and government revenues have been badly hit by the recent oil price slump, which has seen prices fall to around $40 per barrel from nearly $120 per barrel in summer 2014.
The elections in Congo-Brazzaville are the latest in a series where sub-Saharan African presidents have pushed through changes to national constitutions to allow them to run for a third term.
Ugandan premier Yoweri Museveni won a seventh term in office in February, while Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is expected to run for a third term in 2017, after a referendum to change the term limits was passed in December.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila is expected to attempt to extend term limits to allow himself to run for a third term as President in November.