The main opposition parties boycotted the vote, leaving Zakaria Ismail Farah, a 56-year-old political newcomer, as the incumbent leader’s sole challenger.
Voting has started in Djibouti, where Ismail Omar Guelleh is seeking a near-assured fifth term as president of the strategically located small country he has led for 22 years.
Some 215,000 citizens registered to vote on Friday, pitting Guelleh, 73, against a little-known businessman widely seen as posing little threat to the strongman, who inherited power in 1999.
Polling stations opened at 6 a.m. (3 a.m. GMT) across the arid nation of the Horn of Africa, which overlooks one of the world’s busiest trade routes, at the crossroads between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
At a polling center in the capital, election observers said the process was going smoothly and all the logistics were in place.
“Everything is fine,” Mounir El Fassi, an observer for the Arab League mission, told AFP news agency at a polling station.
Voting closes at 7:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. GMT) and the results are expected in the evening.
Djibouti’s main opposition parties boycotted the vote, leaving Zakaria Ismail Farah, a 56-year-old political newcomer and importer of cleaning products, as Guelleh’s sole challenger.
Campaign posters were scarce in the capital, where most of Djibouti’s one million residents reside and where nearly 530 polling stations have opened.
Guelleh, who has garnered at least 75% of the vote in every presidential election he has contested, held his last campaign rally on Wednesday, urging voters to turn out in large numbers.
Under Guelleh, the country exploited its geographic advantage by investing heavily in ports and logistics infrastructure.
In 2018, seeking to become a trade and logistics hub, the country launched the first phase of what will be Africa’s largest free trade zone, funded by China.
Mohamed Assad, a 23-year-old unemployed, said Guelleh has a strong economic record and plans to vote for the veteran leader.
“But I ask you, Mr. President, to help young people have a bright future. I ask for help for those who are like me, ”he said.
Flanked by Somalia and facing Yemen, Djibouti has remained stable in an unstable neighborhood, attracting foreign military powers such as the former colonial ruler, France, the United States and China, to establish bases there.
But the country has also seen an erosion of press freedom and a crackdown on dissent as it courted foreign interests.
Guelleh and his extended family have controlled Djibouti with an iron fist since he took power. A rare wave of opposition protests in 2020 were brutally suppressed.
His planned fifth term will be his last, as part of a 2010 constitutional reform that removed term limits while introducing an age limit of 75, which would exclude him from future elections.
Farah – who had to give up his dual French nationality to join the race – complained that he was not offered security services for his rallies.
He presented himself as the “standard bearer of the poor Djiboutians” and organized a few small rallies before canceling the rest in the days leading up to the poll.
The country’s economy shrank by one percent in 2020, but is expected to grow by seven percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Djibouti’s gross domestic product or per capita GDP income is around $ 3,500, higher than in much of sub-Saharan Africa, but around 20 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and 26 percent of the population live in extreme poverty. one hundred are unemployed, according to the World Bank.