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August 31, 2009

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Gabon heads for first free elections

FOR the first time in more than 41 years, Gabonese casting their votes yesterday will not know ahead of time who their next president will be.

Eighteen candidates are vying to replace the late President Omar Bongo, who ruled for more than four decades and ran as the only candidate in many elections.

The leading contender in yesterday's election is the dead ruler's son, Ali Bongo Ondimba. He has put up posters of himself on the capital's main highway and has crisscrossed the country in a private jet to campaign.

Still, it's not a foregone conclusion that he will win, and for once Gabon's future leader is an open-ended question.

"This is a historic moment. It's the first time since the 1960s that we don't know what the outcome of this election will be. It's also the first time since the 1960s that the name Omar Bongo doesn't appear on the ballot," said Development Minister Anacle Bissielo, who also works as a sociology professor at Omar Bongo University in Libreville.

The Senate leader and interim president, Rose Francine Rogombe, urged Gabonese to "vote calmly, and then go stay at home."

Lines of people snaked out of polling stations including at the Kingulele Public School in the capital, Libreville.

"It's my first time voting," 23-year-old Jacques Koumba said. "I need to make up for the past 40 years."

The race is a contest between the 50-year-old Ali Bongo and four opposition candidates. None of the 18 candidates has a majority, however, and it is unclear whether a winner will be declared even if he wins more than 50 percent of votes.


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