Sassou set to extend 36-year reign as Republic of Congo votes by Reuters

© Reuters. President and presidential candidate Denis Sassou Nguesso addresses his supporters during his last electoral rally in Brazzaville,

By Hereward Holland

BRAZZAVILLE (Reuters) – Polls will open in the Republic of Congo on Sunday, with President Denis Sassou Nguesso set to greatly extend his 36-year term despite an ongoing economic crisis and accusations of mismanaging the country’s oil revenues.

With his grip on power firmer than ever, diplomats and analysts doubt any of Sassou’s six opponents will overthrow him, instead suggesting voter turnout as a better barometer of his popularity.

“There will be no surprises in this election,” said a Brazzaville-based diplomat, requesting anonymity to speak frankly. “People are traumatized. They are not happy, but there is no alternative.”

Observers from the United Nations and the European Union were not invited to follow the elections and the Interior Ministry refused to allow 1,100 observers from the Catholic Church to participate.

Observers are, however, optimistic that the ballot will take place peacefully, unlike the 2016 presidential election which was marked by sporadic violence.

An agreement signed with opposition fighters in 2017 raised hopes for a peaceful outcome.

Oil is the cornerstone of the Congolese economy, representing three quarters of state revenues. But the country’s 5.4 million citizens, 41 percent of whom the World Bank says live below the global poverty line, have little to show.

Extreme poverty has only increased since the last elections, according to the World Bank, as oil revenues have fallen sharply against a backdrop of falling world prices.

Meanwhile, the country’s opaque national oil company and other key private and public sector institutions remain under the control of a group of Sassou’s closest associates, the Global Witness transparency campaign said.

“All our money is outside the country,” Mathias Dzon, former finance minister and presidential candidate, said on Friday. “Do you know which accounts? In private accounts.”

The economic crisis, ignited in part by the government’s mountain of debt to oil traders like Glencore (OTC 🙂 and Trafigura, will pose challenges for whoever takes over the country’s top office.

“The economic situation has been difficult since 2014, but we have faith, an unwavering faith to propel our country on the path of development,” Sassou said during his last rally in Brazzaville.

The results are expected to be published within four days of the vote. If no candidate obtains more than 50% of the votes, a second round will take place 15 days later.

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