N'DJAMENA, Chad – Chadians voted for president Wednesday despite no real alternatives to incumbent Idriss Deby, who rebuffed calls to delay the election in this emerging African oil exporter in favor of peace talks with rebels.
Turnout was low in the morning, with only a handful of voters visible at polling stations. Some of the people gathered nearby said they were heeding an opposition call to boycott the vote. Deby needs a substantial turnout if his victory is to be seen as legitimate.
Still, there was little doubt Deby would retain power in one of the world's poorest countries.
With the opposition boycotting the polls, the only other names on the ballot were three of Deby's cronies and a minor opposition leader. Deby, who needs a massive turnout to give his re-election legitimacy, was among the first to place his vote into a clear plastic ballot box.
"All Chadians have come out to make their choice, the choice of their hearts, the choice of their convictions," Deby said. "This is enough proof that the people of Chad are mature, that they don't need anybody to tell them to boycott elections."
Rebels had pledged to prevent the election from taking place. They launched a pre-dawn attack on the capital last month in a failed bid to oust Deby.
Authorities stepped up security in some neighborhoods, with armed police in pickup trucks patrolling the streets. Only a few international observers were present, except for some African observers and embassy staff monitoring the poll.
"All we want is peace, that everything goes on without incident," said Celestine Maimouna, a trader in the capital, N'Djamena, who declined to say whether she will vote. "With peace, we can go on with our business."
A man and a woman standing near a polling station Wednesday said they would not vote because they believed the poll would be rigged and were unhappy that Deby has refused to negotiate with the political opposition to change the electoral system. They refused to give their names, fearing for their safety if they were seen as opposing Deby.
Deby, who seized power in 1990, won votes in 1996 and 2001 that critics say were neither free nor fair. Last year, he won a national referendum — boycotted by the opposition — to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.
Darfur, where Sudan's government is accused of backing Arab tribal militias that murder and rape civilians and lay waste to villages, has been a recent staging ground for Chadian rebels.
Deby, who came to power with Sudanese help, says the rebels are mercenaries hired by Sudan to destabilize the central Africa region.
The Sudanese government denies the charge and accuses Chad of supporting the Darfur rebels. Eastern Chad is home to some 200,000 refugees from Darfur.
Although Chad is a small-scale oil exporter, the turmoil here has added to global worries about supply shortfalls that have driven up prices.
Chad began pumping oil from a southern field in 2003 and exported about 133 million barrels in its first two years. But oil has not meant instant riches, and that has been another source of tension.
A four-month confrontation over oil with the World Bank appears closer to resolution after the two sides reached an interim deal last week under which the World Bank will gradually release $125 million in oil revenues it froze after Chad changed key provisions of its World Bank-backed oil program.
In return for the funds' release, Chad must pass a new budget law by July that ensures it does not use oil money for defense and begins to reform the way public money is managed, which includes fighting graft.
Deby's rivals, who are hoping for a low voter turnout, said the country needs electoral reform before credible polls can be held. Deby countered that a delay would create a constitutional vacuum.
About 5.8 million people in this country of almost 10 million are registered to vote.
The electoral commission's timetable says provisional results will be announced by May 14. Candidates then will have 10 days to appeal the outcome at the Constitutional Court, which declares final results.
Saleh Djibril Bashir, a trader seated outside a campaign office of Deby's Patriotic Salvation Movement, said he was going to vote for the president because he "built the roads here, the bridge, he began exporting petrol."
Dionmaye Mbaimoundou, an unemployed university graduate, said he was not going to vote because he believes voter registers had been tampered with and the country's electoral commission was not independent.
"Chadians who care about our future and our country, we cannot accept such wrong things," Mbaimoundou said. "To show that we are not with him (the president), we will not vote."