May 3, 2006

Polls open quietly in one-sided Chad election

By Pascal Fletcher

NDJAMENA (Reuters) - Voters in Chad trickled to the polls
on Wednesday in a one-sided election expected to keep President
Idriss Deby in power, despite an opposition boycott and a rebel
threat of violence.

Deby, an ex-army chief who seized control of the former
French colony in 1990 and won elections in 1996 and 2001, is
seen winning a third five-year term because he faces no serious
challenge from four contenders who are mostly government

His supporters present him as a guarantor of stability
against the spillover of conflict from the violence-torn Darfur
region of neighboring Sudan. Deby accuses the Sudanese
government of trying to overthrow him.

But critics say his nearly 16-year rule has become
increasingly corrupt and dictatorial in the landlocked central
African state.

Polls opened at 0700 local (0600 GMT) but there was only a
trickle of early voters at makeshift polling stations set up
under trees on the dusty pavements of capital N'Djamena.

Most consisted of little more than a table, benches, a
plastic urn and a sheet hung from a tree for a voting booth.
Security appeared to be light, although soldiers and government
officials were among the first to vote.

"We want peace and development for the country," said
Zakaria Mary Mahamat Hassan, a 21-year-old student voting in
the central neighborhood Djambal Barh.

"You shouldn't do things by the gun, you should use the
ballot box," Mahamat Hassan said, adding he had voted for the
president. He criticized the opposition boycott and the rebel
threat to disrupt the polls.


Deby's army is on alert to thwart any threat from rebels
who raced in pickup trucks from the eastern border with Sudan
almost three weeks ago to raid N'Djamena, in the country's far

Fearing a fresh attack, some residents of the capital have
taken refuge across the river in nearby Cameroon in recent

The April 13 attack on N'Djamena was defeated by government
troops helped by intelligence passed on by a 1,200-strong
French military contingent stationed in Chad.

French Mirage jets, which fired a warning shot at one rebel
column, fly daily reconnaissance missions over the arid country
twice the size of France.

"This is an election being held under French protection --
have you heard the jets? It's a complete farce," said Ngarledjy
Yorongar, an opponent of Deby, whose Action for the Republic
Federation is joining 15 other opposition parties in an
election boycott.

Government ministers call the boycott "anti-democratic" and
say the rebel attempts to seize power by force are a recipe for
further chaos and bloodshed in a country plagued by ethnic
conflict and civil war since its independence in 1960.

"It's them (the opposition) who will be electing Deby by
refusing to take part in the elections," Foreign Minister Ahmat
Allam-Mi told Reuters.

The ruggedness of the country -- which includes
wind-blasted mountains and deserts and dry, brush-covered
savannah -- also makes holding an election a logistical

Many of the 5.8 million voters will have to walk several
miles to cast their ballots and officials say official results
may take several days to be released.

Although Chad became an oil producer in 2003, it remains
one of Africa's poorest and most corrupt countries. Most of its
10 million inhabitants live in squalid towns and villages with
scarce water and power, and only rudimentary health and
education facilities.