• Election pits President Bongo against former ally Jean Ping
  • Unity in opposition seen narrowing margin of victory

Gabon’s two main presidential candidates cast their votes on Saturday in what may be the closest election in the oil-rich nation that’s been ruled by one family for 49 years.

The election pits President Ali Bongo, who’s seeking a second seven-year term, against 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.

Bongo and Ping posted pictures of themselves on their Twitter accounts while casting their votes. “I call upon everyone to go to the polls to do his civic duty in calm and serenity,” Bongo said.

Bongo, 57, was first 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 during a reign that started in 1967.

In a surprise announcement, two prominent opposition candidates said this month they had decided to throw their weight behind Ping. “Wisdom has prevailed within the ranks of the Gabonese opposition, resulting in my designation as leader,” Ping, 73, said in an interview earlier this month. “We got all what it takes to bring an end to the reign of this imposter and dictator.”

Gabon removed presidential term limits in 1991. Whoever secures the most votes in the first round wins the election. The U.S. State Department, in a message warning citizens of possible post-election demonstrations in Gabon, said results may be announced as early as Monday night.

“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.”

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.

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