Some hope Chad's vote will bring calm. Skeptics abound.

Amid rebel attacks, President Deby seeks a third term Wednesday in a vote boycotted by the opposition.

Often likened to a desert fox, Chadian President Idriss Deby is proving true to form, refusing to be smoked out of his hole despite Army desertions, unrest within his own clan, and increasingly daring rebel attacks.

On Wednesday, Mr. Deby is expected to be reelected for a third term - something he was banned from doing until his ruling party pushed through constitutional changes that were rubber-stamped in a referendum last year. But observers say the May 3 polls are unlikely to turn the page on troubles that threaten to suck in the whole central African region.

"These elections are a load of rubbish, so if they go ahead or not is of no importance to the Chadian people, and will not stop us from doing what we planned," says Albissaty Saleg Allazam, the spokesman for the United Front for Democratic Change (FUC) rebel group, which last month launched its most daring attack yet, into the capital, N'Djamena.

"I can tell you that there will certainly be another action, even more striking," Mr. Allazam wrote in an e-mail response to questions, declining to give any more details.

N'Djamena's residents are ostensibly getting on with day-to-day life, with markets open and battered taxis and bicycles plying the dusty streets. But even the briefest conversation betrays the insecurity that is weighing on them as the clock counts down to the polls.

"We know the rebels will be back because they've not achieved their goal," says unemployed 20-year-old Abel Nassour. "The politicians are all sending their wives and children out of town because they are worried about their safety, but we don't have the luxury of doing that. How can they hold elections in these conditions?"

Adding to jitters about a fresh attack, officials in Central African Republic said last week that two aircraft, each carrying 50 armed men with suspected links to rebels, had landed illegally in the lawless northern region that borders Chad. Meanwhile, the Chadian Army continues patrols in villages outside the capital.

Although there have been multiparty polls for the past decade, this time no opposition candidates are contesting.Deby's face smiles out from all the campaign photos, and his party's blue and yellow flags, emblazoned with two crossed guns, flutter in almost every street.

But there is little in the way of election fever and his convoy of five Hummers, flanked by truckloads of soldiers, elicits little more than a wistful stare or an angry aside in the world's fifth-poorest country. "I'm not going to vote on Wednesday, what would be the point?" sighs Mr. Nassour, to nods of agreement from a small crowd around him. "The result will be the same. It's Deby against Deby."

The political opposition, who accuse the president of favoring his own clan and skimming off oil profits while the country disintegrates in a pool of poverty and corruption, have branded the polls a farce and refused to take part. That leaves Deby facing four friendly candidates, two of whom are ministers in his government and two of whom lead parties allied to him.

"This ballot will not confer any legitimacy, so everyone will contest. I see chaos ahead," said Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, spokesman for the 20-party opposition coalition.

The rebels and opposition leaders accuse former colonial power France of propping up Deby, who himself seized power in a coup in 1990. As rebels were advancing on the capital last month, French planes fired warning shots at the advancing column.

Analysts say that the French consider the current regime the least worrisome option, and that Paris is worried the country will descend into anarchy if Deby should fall.

The fact that the Sudanese government is widely believed to backing the rebels only complicates the situation, given that there are more than 200,000 refugees from Darfur sheltering in camps strung across eastern Chad.

On top of this, UN officials estimate that 50,000 Chadians are displaced in the eastern part of the country, having fled their homes during attacks over the last four months. Many have lodged with friends and family until now, but the fear is that as the annual hunger season bites, food will run out and they too will require emergency assistance.

April and May are crucial months, when half-a-year's worth of food has to be prepositioned at the camps before the rains arrive and render roads impassable.

"Our operation in eastern Chad is on a knife edge, even at the best of times," says Stefano Porretti, country director for the World Food Programme. "We have warned for some time that any deterioration in the situation could have dire consequences for those we are assisting, and now some of our worst fears might be realized."

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