• Election pits President Bongo against former ally Jean Ping
  • Vote is likely to be most competitive ever in oil producer

Gabon’s presidential elections on Saturday will pit two former allies against each other in what may be the closest-ever vote in the oil-rich nation that’s been ruled by one family for 49 years.

Supporters of Ali Bongo at a rally in Moanda on Aug. 23.
Supporters of Ali Bongo at a rally in Moanda on Aug. 23.
Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

The two main contenders are President Ali Bongo, who’s seeking a second seven-year term in office, and Jean Ping, a former chairman of the African Union Commission who broke with the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party in 2014. Eleven other candidates are vying for the presidency in the central African nation that rejoined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries this year amid a slump in oil revenue.

“This election is unprecedented,” Cailin Birch, a political analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said by phone. “The ruling party that’s been running Gabon since independence controls everything, but what we see now is increasing unity within the opposition, which could mean that the margin of victory will be narrower than ever before.”

In a surprise announcement, two prominent opposition candidates said this month they had decided to throw their weight behind Ping.

‘Wind Vane’

Gabon removed presidential term limits in 1991. Whoever secures the most votes in the first round wins the election.

Ping accuses Bongo, 57, of being a dictator who will rig the elections to stay in power. Bongo has dismissed the allegations, saying Ping is just another “wind vane” in a long line of men who rose to prominence because of the Bongo family, before turning against them.

Bongo was elected four months after the 2009 death in office of his father, Omar Bongo, who was at the time the world’s longest-serving president. U.S. and French investigations later revealed that Omar Bongo used hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds to acquire dozens of mansions and luxury cars.

To read a recent interview with President Bongo, click here

The election was marred by violent protests in the two main cities, Port-Gentil and Libreville. Immediately after assuming office, Ali Bongo positioned himself as a business-minded president looking to reduce the economy’s dependence on oil. Since then, he has boosted investment in palm-oil production and mining, restricted exports of raw materials to encourage local processing and overseen the creation of a special economic zone near the capital, Libreville.

Marine Reserves

Ping was considered a stalwart of the regime until he quit the ruling party. The 73-year-old diplomat, who has two children with Bongo’s sister, Pascaline, held at least five ministerial portfolios under Omar Bongo. He then served as Gabon’s most high-profile diplomat as chair of the African Union Commission for four years until 2012.

With fewer than 2 million people in a nation that’s about the size of the U.K., Gabon has Africa’s lowest population density. Oil accounts for 85 percent of exports and about half of its gross domestic product, according to the government. Output declined from a peak of 370,000 barrels a day in 1997 to about 215,000 barrels daily last year.

Poor infrastructure has hampered efforts to build a tourism industry for its forest and marine reserves, while falling oil prices forced Bongo to slash budgets. The slow implementation of government plans has eroded his popularity, even if it’s highly likely that he will win the elections and extend his rule, according to Birch.

“Gabon was one of few countries to commit to a comprehensive plan of diversification before the oil slump,” Birch said. “But public sentiment has been turning away from Ali Bongo partly because many of his ambitious public investment plans have stalled.”

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