Polls opened in Congo Republic on Sunday, with President Denis Sassou Nguesso widely expected to extend his 36-year rule despite an economic crisis in the Central African oil producer.
With Sassou's grip on power firm, diplomats and analysts doubt any of his six opponents will unseat him.
The president's main rival, former government minister Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, was in hospital with COVID-19 and could be evacuated to France on Sunday, Kolelas' campaign director told Radio France Internationale.
Even so, the government appeared to be leaving nothing to chance. There was an internet blackout across the country on Sunday, according to internet monitor NetBlocks.
Sassou, a 77-year-old former paratrooper, rose to power in 1979. He lost Congo's first multi-party elections in 1992 but reclaimed the presidency in 1997 after a civil war. He later changed the constitution to extend term limits.
"I hope the vote is calm and that there are no incidents," said Michel Bedo, an 80-year-old retiree, after casting his ballot at a school in the capital Brazzaville. "The Congolese people don't want disorder."
United Nations and European Union observers were not invited to monitor the election, and the Interior Ministry refused to allow the Catholic Church's 1,100 observers to take part.
Observers are optimistic, however, that the vote will be peaceful — in contrast to the last election in 2016 that was marred by sporadic violence. The government signed a peace accord with an anti-Sassou rebel group in 2017, quieting a conflict in southern Congo.
Congo is a major oil producer, yet 41% of its 5.4 million citizens live below the global poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Extreme poverty has increased since the last election as oil prices slumped. Public debt, much of it owed to oil traders like Glencore and Trafigura, ballooned to more than 100% of GDP.
Anti-corruption activists say vast sums are lost to graft by Sassou's inner circle, accusations the government denies.
"The economic situation has been difficult since 2014, but we have faith, unshakeable faith to propel our country on the path to development," Sassou said at his final rally on Friday.
Kolelas, who finished second in 2016, released a video from his hospital bed late on Saturday. Breathing heavily and holding an oxygen mask next to his face, he said he was "battling against death" but urged Congolese to "go vote for change."
Source: Voice of America