May 3, 2006

Deby leads supporters in one-sided Chad election

By Pascal Fletcher

NDJAMENA (Reuters) - Chad's President Idriss Deby led his
supporters to vote on Wednesday in a one-sided election
expected to keep him in power, brushing aside an opposition
boycott and a rebel threat of violence to disrupt the polls.

Despite a slow initial turnout at makeshift polling
stations set up on the dusty pavements of the capital
N'Djamena, former army chief Deby is almost certain of winning
a third five-year term because his four contenders are mostly
government allies.

His supporters present him as a guarantor of stability
against the spill over of conflict from the violence-torn
Darfur region of neighboring Sudan. Deby accuses the Sudanese
government of trying to overthrow him after an April 13 rebel
assault on N'Djamena launched from across the border.

But critics say his nearly 16-year rule has become
increasingly corrupt and dictatorial in the landlocked central
African state, since he seized power in a 1990 uprising.

Chad's fragmented opposition is boycotting Wednesday's poll
as a farce, following elections in 1996 and 2001 they say were
fraudulent in the former French colony.

"The essential thing is that we will have elections today,"
Deby said after voting, wearing a dark blue safari suit and
surrounded by presidential guards swathed in turbans. "This
proves the Chadian people is mature. There will be no boycott!"

The initial turnout, however, appeared low as voters
trickled to improvised polling stations. Most consisted of
little more than a table, benches, a plastic urn and a sheet
hung from a tree for a voting booth.

Fearing a fresh attack, some residents of the capital have
taken refuge across the river in nearby Cameroon in recent
days, but N'Djamena's dusty, potholed streets remained quiet on
Wednesday. 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 of 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


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.

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

The attack was defeated by government troops helped by
intelligence passed on by a 1,200-strong French military
contingent stationed in Chad -- which analysts say keeps the
military balance of power firmly in Deby's favor.

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 election is under the protection of the French
Mirages," one foreign ambassador, who asked not to be named,
said on Wednesday -- pointing to the sky as French warplanes
roared over the capital.

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.