Cameroon voted on Sunday in polls overshadowed by a partial opposition boycott and separatist violence that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Elections for the central African country’s legislature and local councils are taking place for the first time in seven years, after two postponements.
They are unlikely to ruffle the enduring rule of President Paul Biya, one of the world’s oldest and longest-serving leaders, who has held a tight grip on power for 37 of his 86 years.
As voting began large numbers of police and soldiers were seen deployed on the streets of Buea, the capital of the Southwest Region, one of two provinces gripped by bloody separatist violence.
But polling stations in the city were quiet with no violence reported about four hours after they opened at 8 am (07.00 GMT).
Most of the morning’s voting appeared to have been done by members of the security forces, deployed to keep the peace.
The main opposition party, the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC) is refusing to field a single candidate.
The boycott will all but guarantee a crushing victory for the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (RDPC in its French initials), which in the outgoing legislature had 148 out of 180 seats.
The other large opposition party, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), which currently has 18 seats, will take part in Sunday’s vote, going back on a threat to snub it.
In the capital Yaounde, it appeared that enthusiasm for the vote was subdued, with no crowds outside polling stations in the district of Briqueterie.
“People went to mass first, there’ll be more coming in the afternoon,” said one election official.
“I want to do my duty as a citizen,” said Abdias Lah, one of the few voters to cast an early ballot.
‘Spiral of violence’
Cameroon is struggling with two conflicts.
In the two English-speaking regions – the southwest and northwest – the armed forces are battling separatists who want to secede from the majority French-speaking country.
The conflict has claimed more than 3,000 lives and caused more than 700,000 people to flee since it began over two years ago, according to tolls compiled by NGOs.
Amnesty International said there has been a “surge in violence” by the Cameroon military in the weeks leading up to the vote, resulting in killings and the displacement of thousands in the English-speaking regions.
“In recent weeks, brutal military operations have been conducted while crimes committed by armed separatists continue unabated. Civilians are finding themselves trapped in a spiral of violence,” said Fabien Offner, Amnesty’s Lake Chad Researcher.
The SDF traditionally draws much of its support from the anglophone regions but now fears that it has been outflanked by the radicals –– and says its candidates there have come under attack.
Similar worries are being voiced for the safety of polling stations in Cameroon’s Far North region, which has been battered by Boko Haram militants crossing from Nigeria.
The government on Friday announced that all of Cameroon’s borders would be closed until Monday, and shops and drink outlets had to close on polling day.
At least 120 candidates have been abducted in the North West and South West regions over the past two weeks.
Only about 60 of the candidates have been released, and the separatists on social media have indicated they will release the rest after the election.
Residents say suspected separatists have chopped off the fingers of at least 12 people caught with voter cards.
MRC leader, Maurice Kamto, spent nine months in jail after his defeat in the 2018 presidential elections and is now abroad.
“We could have had a few seats in parliament and some town councillors, but how would that enable us to influence events in Cameroon?” Kamto said in an interview with AFP news agency in Paris last month.
Given the seemingly inevitable outcome of a legislative vote, most media attention has focused on the municipal elections that are also taking place.
Some cities, including Douala, the country’s economic hub, could swing to the opposition, according to some forecasts.
City chiefs are to gain new powers under measures taken in December to decentralise some authority out of Yaounde.
The reforms have been triggered by the anglophone crisis although they fall far short of meeting the separatists’ demands.
“The stakes (on Sunday) are local,” said Stephane Akoa, a researcher at the Paul Ango Ela think tank in Yaounde.