By Pascal Fletcher
N’DJAMENA – Chadian President Idriss Deby appeared headed for re-election on Thursday but analysts said low voter turnout gave him a shaky mandate and made it more difficult to block rebels bent on ending his 16-year rule.
polls closed, Deby’s Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) was hailing Wednesday’s vote as a triumph of the ballot box over the gun and a victory for the president’s bid for a third five-year term in the landlocked, central African oil producer, one of the world’s poorest countries.
But opposition leaders who boycotted the vote and rebel groups which had threatened to disrupt polling dismissed the election as a sham in a volatile country where renewed instability will hamper international efforts to secure peace in neighbouring Darfur, Sudan’s violence-torn western region.
Almost everyone — diplomats, Deby’s supporters and even hardline opponents — see his re-election as a foregone conclusion, even though official results are not expected for at least a week.
The four other presidential challengers were almost all government allies, including two ministers.
Few believed the latest polls offered peace to the former French colony, which has had a history of clan-based ethnic feuding and civil war since independence in 1960.
Diplomats who visited polling stations said the visibly low, unenthusiastic turnout offered only a flimsy endorsement of Deby’s continued rule. While his supporters spoke of a turnout of more than 30 percent, estimates by some diplomats put it closer to 10 percent.
“Both the regime and its armed opponents have little political capital other than survival for the president and his removal by force for his opponents,” said Suliman Baldo, Africa director for Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group.
“By insisting to go to elections in these conditions, Deby appears to have condemned his country to civil war,” he said.
One disgruntled voter put it more bluntly. “If Deby is re-elected, there will always be rebels,” said Hassan Goussou, 25 and unemployed, who said that despite his misgivings he had voted for the president.
“WE NEED NEGOTIATIONS”
“Whether you vote or not. it’s all the same. We need negotiations. If not, it’s just war and deadlock,” Goussou said, speaking on a dust-strewn street of the ramshackle capital N’Djamena, which was attacked by anti-Deby rebels earlier this month. Several hundred people were killed.
Deby, who accuses neighbour Sudan of backing the rebels, has offered his opponents a post-election dialogue, including the possibility of an amnesty, if they accept the result of the election.
But rebel spokesmen, who insist they cannot accept extending the nearly 16 year rule of a leader they portray as dictatorial and corrupt, say this is not a credible offer.
“What are we going to discuss? He doesn’t listen to anyone,” said Albissaty Saleh Allazam, spokesman for the rebel United Front for Democratic Change (FUC).
“He seeks legitimacy but he’s the worst elected president in Africa,” said Timan Erdimi, a nephew of Deby who deserted him and now leads the recently formed rebel Rally of Democratic Forces (RAFD).
The FUC and RAFD say they are coordinating fresh military operations.
Deby, 54, a former army chief, seized power in a revolt from the east by his Zaghawa clan, which lives in both Chad and Sudan. He now faces a rebellion both from other ethnic groups and from disaffected Zaghawa kinsmen, like Erdimi, who have deserted him.
Baldo said the rebels were weakened by their narrow clan bases, infighting and their failure to articulate a national political programme.
“The country appears to be heading for a period of low intensity rural insurgencies,” he added.
The opposition accuses France of propping up Deby. Diplomats say the presence of a French military contingent in Chad — especially six Mirage jets that fly reconnaissance over rebel positions in the vast, rugged country — gives the president the military edge over his foes.
Ordinary Chadians say they are tired of conflict.
“You can’t solve anything through war. It’s not a solution,” said Sidiky Ali, an N’Djamena student and nephew of one of the rebel leaders opposing Deby. — Reuter