CONGO. Brazzaville: Security forces in the Republic of Congo cast their ballots on March 17 ahead of the presidential elections on March 21.
The presidential elections have veteran leader Denis Sassou Nguesso as the frontrunner.
A polling station was opened in the city of Dolisie in the south of the country where AFP journalists observed that 1,203 soldiers, police and gendarmes were scheduled to vote.
Also called Congo-Brazzaville, the Republic is an oil-rich but also a poor neighbour of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sassou Nguesso, bidding for a fourth term, is a 77-year-old retired general who first ruled from 1979 to 1992 before returning at the end of a civil war in 1997.
“This early voting by the security forces is a test that we are trying out. Other African countries do it already,” Henri Bouka, President of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) overseeing the ballot, told a French news outlet AFP.
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Opposition groups have criticised the move to separate voting by the security forces from the general public, seeing in it a further risk of ballot fraud.
Calls For Electoral Reforms
In 2015, the country staged a referendum on removing a 70-year age limit and a ban on presidents serving more than two terms.
The move paved the way for Sassou Nguesso to secure a third term in elections in March 2016 that were marred by bloodshed.
His rivals, former General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and former Minister Andre Okombi Salissa, disputed the results.
They were arrested, put on trial and each was handed 20 years in jail on charges of undermining state security.
The Challengers in the Election
Sassou Nguesso faces seven challengers on Sunday, most notably Mathias Dzon, a 73-year-old former finance minister who was the runner-up in 2016.
The largest opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), has already said it will boycott.
Another major figure, Frederic Bintsamou, a former rebel chief who took up arms against Sassou Nguesso after the 2016 vote, has called for a peaceful ballot.
Bintsamou, also called Pastor Ntumi, told journalists that his party, the National Council of Republicans (CNR), would not field or support any candidate.
The elections “must not be the occasion for stirring the old demons of division,” Bintsamou told journalists on March 13.