Voters poll in Comoros ahead of 2016 presidential race as island seeks to burnish political image

The island has had 20 coups or attempted coups in the four decades since independence in 1975.

VOTERS went to the polls Sunday in the chronically unstable Indian Ocean archipelago of the Comoros in a parliamentary election seen as a test for former leader Abdallah Sambi, a Muslim populist poised to make a comeback.

The vote, which was reported to be peaceful, is the first in a cycle of legislative and local government polls culminating in 2016 presidential elections.

“Turnout has been very high, above 60%,” the Interior Minister told AFP before midnight local time (2100 GMT). “The emerging indications show Juwa (Sambi’s party) in the lead.”

Ismael Saadi, the head of the election monitor in the Comoros, said voter participation had reached 60 to 70%.

Polling booths opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT), with voting slow off the mark in the capital, Moroni, but with long queues snaking through small villages elsewhere.

Finance Minister and Vice President Mohamed Ali Soilihi, speaking as he cast his vote, told reporters the results would shape the political landscape over coming months and be a “barometer” of opinion ahead of next year’s polls.

“If we have a hostile majority to the executive’s policies we will struggle to serve out our mandate in normal conditions,” he said.

Official results, however, were not expected before Tuesday or Wednesday.

Around a quarter of a million voters were registered to cast ballots for federal parliamentary members before a second round scheduled for February 22 when they will also elect local government councillors.

“We hope the new parliament will benefit the people,” said voter Ibrahim Attoumane in an apparent reference to the graft undermining the economically fragile group of tropical islands of 735,000 people.

But much of the talk in the run-up to the vote has been about Sambi, who held presidential office between 2006 and 2011, when he tightened ties with Islamic nations.

Sambi hopes to return to the president’s office in this former French archipelago even though he is not eligible for re-election as yet.

After 20 coups or attempted coups in the four decades since independence in 1975, a gentleman’s agreement was reached to rotate the presidency between the three islands.

Under that deal, Sambi cannot run for office next year because it will not be his island’s turn. But he is determined to change that rule if his Juwa party wins the majority parliamentary seats.

Sambi wrapped up his party’s campaign Friday with a rally staged in grand style after the day’s Muslim prayers.

The four-year mandate for the current federal parliament was meant to have expired in April but was extended to the end of last year.

This year’s election has attracted huge numbers of candidates, but was marred by blunders in the distribution of voters cards.

Foreign donors will want to see the election run smoothly in a bid to spruce up the image of the small country whose tropical beaches and coconut trees resemble an impoverished version of the touristic Seychelles.

The economy posted an average three percent growth in the three years up to 2013. But a population boom, fuelled by an average of five children per woman, puts pressure on the islands’ meagre resources.

A total of 878 candidates are vying for the ballots of 275,348 voters.

President Ikililou Dhoinine’s five-year term ends in May 2016.

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