Djibouti: Voters in Djibouti went to the polls on Friday, with iron-fisted ruler Esmail Omar Guelleh expected to extend his 17-year rule in the strategic African nation courted by world powers.
Six candidates are vying for the presidency in the tiny Horn of Africa country, whose strategic location at the gateway to the Red Sea has attracted powers such as the US, France and China as a prime location for military bases.
Guelleh is the clear front-runner, predicted to win a fourth election victory in the former French colony after taking over from his relative Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who ruled from independence in 1977 until 1999.
As in previous polls, some opposition parties are boycotting the election in which 180,000 people are expected to cast their ballots.
Polling stations opened at 6am (0300 GMT) but few had voted so far Friday, the weekly day off in Djibouti. The streets of Djibouti City were almost deserted except for security forces.
“It’s a little early, people will come around 10[am],” said an election official at a polling station in the city centre, where only around 15 ballots had been cast.
Results are expected as early as Friday evening.
Djibril, a security worker who had just voted, said he had backed Guelleh. “There’s no question,” he said. “The other candidates have no policies. Guelleh has very clear policies: continue making advancements, development, the ports. We have to stick with him.”
His views were not shared by Hussain, among the 60 per cent of Djibouti’s population who are unemployed.
“We need something different,” he said as he went to cast his ballot.
With a population of less than a million, Djibouti is little more than a port with a country attached, but it has leveraged its position on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
It is home to the United States’ only permanent base in Africa, which is used for operations in Yemen — just across the Gulf of Aden — as well as the fight against the Al Shabab militants in Somalia and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Guelleh, 68, and his Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) face a fractured opposition with his two main opponents, Mohammad Daoud Chehem and Omar Elmi Khaireh, both claiming to represent the Union for National Salvation opposition coalition.
The seven-party opposition alliance was founded in 2013 but has failed to agree on a single candidate to contest its first presidential election, while three of the member parties have broken ranks to boycott the poll.
Guelleh won the last polls in 2011 with 80 per cent of the vote, after parliament changed the constitution to clear the way for a third, and now a likely fourth, term.
Following parliamentary elections in 2013 which Guelleh’s UMP won with 49 per cent of the vote amid furious opposition claims of fraud, rival parties demanded the creation of an independent electoral commission. This has not been established, leading some opponents to cry foul and declare a boycott.
Opposition groups have complained of curbs on freedom of assembly and expression in the election run-up and human rights groups have denounced political repression and crackdowns on basic freedoms.
This week a BBC team was detained, interrogated and then expelled from Djibouti after interviewing an opposition leader.
Djibouti has launched major infrastructure projects — including new ports, railways and oil and gas facilities — aimed at turning it into a regional hub for trade and services.
To finance these projects, Djibouti has largely turned to loans from China, which also plans to build a military base, close to others manned by French and American soldiers.
Despite these big investments and perky economic growth there has been little improvement in the lives of ordinary people, with four out of five people living in poverty.