May 3, 2006

Deby leads supporters in Chad election

By Pascal Fletcher

NDJAMENA (Reuters) - Chad's President Idriss Deby led his
supporters to vote on Wednesday in an election expected to
extend his 16-year rule, but many people heeded an opposition
call to boycott the polls overshadowed by rebel violence.

Despite a slow 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.

"The essential 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!"

Deby's supporters say he is a guarantor of stability
against a spillover from the conflict in the Darfur region of
neighbor Sudan. He accuses Khartoum of trying to oust him in an
April 13 rebel assault on N'Djamena launched from over the

But critics say his 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.

"These elections do not interest us: we know who will win,"
said student Masra Pall, 31, in a market in a poor eastern
neighborhood where many people heeded the opposition call.
"This is the third consecutive time. This is not democracy."

Fearing a fresh attack, some residents of the capital took
refuge across the river in Cameroon in recent days, but
N'Djamena's potholed streets remained quiet. Security was
light, although soldiers and officials were among the first to

Turnout appeared low as voters trickled to improvised
polling stations. Most consisted of just a table, benches, a
plastic urn and a sheet hung from a tree for a voting booth.

At some polling stations, election officials appeared to be
helping voters in their choice. "You vote for the president.
You put his slip into the envelope and put it into the ballot
box," one female electoral official told a female voter.


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.

Aid workers said the main eastern city of Abeche, which
houses the main French garrison, was calm on Wednesday.

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.