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Gabon voters report polling station delays as country holds major election

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LIBREVILLE, Gabon (AP) — Voters in Gabon said polling stations opened far later than planned Saturday as the Central African nation held elections for local leaders, legislators and a president.

Incumbent President Ali Bongo Ondimba was seeking a third seven-year term and to continue a 55-year political dynasty. Bongo came to power in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the country for 41 years.

Bongo, 64, won his current term in office by a narrow margin in 2016 amid violent protests. The opposition united in favor of his main challenger, economics professor Albert Ondo Ossa, one week before the general election.

Around 847,000 people were eligible to cast ballots Saturday. Voters in Libreville, Gabon’s capital, complained of polling stations opening late. Voting was scheduled to begin in the morning, but many election sites had failed to open as of 2 p.m.

“I’ve finally voted. I’ve been here since 6 a.m. It was at 12 noon that I was able to vote, because the polling station opened at 11 a.m.,” Ballack Obame, a former student leader, said.

“I’ve never seen an election in Gabon that doesn’t start before 10 o’clock. It’s really sad. I’m going home,” said Théophile Obiang, a pensioner leaning on his cane.

Authorities have not explained the reasons for delays, or indicated when results will be announced.

“Voters must benefit from the 10-hour period provided for by electoral law,” said Paulette Missambo, who withdrew from the presidential race in favor of Ossa, an independent candidate.

Ossa’s platform revolves around breaking Gabon out of the status quo. He said that if elected, he would dissolve the National Assembly, redraw the electoral map and organize a new legislative election, with a goal of forming a government committed to addressing economic inequality.

“Sixty years in power is too much. I’m not afraid of (President Bongo),” Ossa said after casting his ballot at a Libreville school on Saturday afternoon.

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Every vote held in Gabon since the country’s return to a multi-party system in 1990 has ended in violence. Clashes between government forces and protesters following the 2016 elections killed four people, according to official figures. The opposition said the death toll was far higher.

In anticipation of post-electoral violence, many in the capital have gone to visit family in other parts of the country, or left Gabon altogether. Others have stockpiled food or bolstered security in their homes.

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