Congo votes for parliament with opposition calling foul

Brazzaville (AFP) - Voters went to the polls in legislative elections in the oil-rich Republic of Congo on Sunday, the first since a violence-marred presidential poll last year which returned Denis Sassou Nguesso to power.

The first round of polling to elect National Assembly members as well as local councils went ahead despite the opposition calling foul, accusing the ruling Congolese Labour Party (PCT) of giving its candidates an unfair advantage.

Electoral officials said voting passed off calmly although some polling stations opened more than a hour late because of a delay in receiving voting materials. Polls closed at 6:00 pm (1700 GMT).

However, an incident was reported in the northern town of Kelle where opposition protesters briefly took away the ballot boxes, a local resident who gave his name only as Antoine told AFP by phone.

"The ballot boxes have been returned after a lot of negotiation," he said, adding that one protester was beaten up by police but that his injuries were not life-threatening.

Sassou Nguesso returned to office in March 2016 after a constitutional referendum ended a two-term presidential term limit, amid deadly violence notably in the Pool region neighbouring the capital Brazzaville.

The 73-year-old president's PCT ran 128 candidates for the 151 seats available, while several independents have close ties to the party.

The main parliamentary opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), put forward 43 candidates, compared to 31 run by the UDH-Yuki group of Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, who came second in the presidentials last year.

But an opposition coalition said it would only take part under certain circumstances, including "the end of the crisis in Pool and the release of all political prisoners".

Two leaders of that coalition, Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and Andre Okombi Salissa, were arrested and jailed in June 2016 and in January "for threatening the internal security of the state".

"It's a disgraceful election and we already knew there would be fraud. The system for organising these elections is like the mafia," Clement Mierassa, a leader of the Frocad opposition grouping, told AFP Sunday.

- 'One-way campaign' -

Django Cissoko, head of a 50-strong African Union observer mission, said on Friday that "campaigning has been carried out normally."

But UPADS spokesman Daniel Tsoumou Ngouaka said the ruling party had the upper hand. "It's a one-way campaign because the PCT has controlled all the state media, leaving no space for others," he said.

"The PCT drew on public funds for the campaign of its candidates and its allies. It's unacceptable," added Christophe Moukoueke, spokesman for a collective of opposition parties which called for a boycott of Sunday's polls.

Sassou Nguesso, a former paratrooper, served as president from 1979 to 1992, returning to power in 1997 following a civil war. He won two successive terms in elections in 2002 and 2009, both of which were disputed by opposition parties.

Congo has substantial deposits of oil, timber and diamonds, but oil production remains its most important economic sector, and it is the fourth biggest producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dwindling reserves and civil wars that have ravaged the economy has slowed growth. Almost half the population of 4.5 million people still lives in poverty, according to World Bank data.

No date has been given for the official announcement of elections results.

The second round of the legislative polls is scheduled for July 30.

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