Comorans vote, hoping to end poverty, violent past
MORONI, May 14 : Comorans today voted in the final round of a presidential race dominated by concerns over extreme poverty, and corruption.
Voters on the Indian Ocean archipelago of 670,000 people will choose between three candidates in a poll it is hoped will finally end a history of mercenary coups and inter-island conflicts since independence from France in 1975.
A total of 309,957 people were registered to vote across the three islands.
Popular religious leader and former MP Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi -- nicknamed ''Ayatollah'' because of his schooling in Iran -- is the frontrunner.
A businessman and keen basketball player, he has promised to end graft, create employment and build proper housing for Comorans living in straw shacks.
The other contenders are Mohamed Djaanfari, a former pilot in the French military for 30 years, and Ibrahim Halidi, a candidate backed by outgoing President Azaly Assoumani.
Analysts say the vote will test whether a power-sharing pact signed between the islands in 2001 can bring their first peaceful change of power, ending a string of 19 coups or coup attempts including four by infamous French mercenary Bob Denard.
Under the deal, each of the three islands in turn takes the rotating federal presidency every four years. Azaly is from the main island Grande Comore and Anjouan takes it this time followed by the smallest, Moheli, in 2010.
Minor skirmishes have been reported in the run-up to this round.
On May 5, machete-wielding attackers stormed two radio stations on Grande Comore forcing them off air for 24 hours.
Some Comorans doubt whether Azaly, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1991 and was elected in 2002, will go peacefully. But diplomats say he is not likely to undo a peace deal he helped craft.
AU TROOPS KEEP WATCH
Several hundred extra African Union soldiers and two helicopter gunships arrived in Moroni from South Africa yesterday to boost an existing 460-strong force. They were deployed across the three islands to monitor the vote and prevent abuses by the army.
The AU did not disclose the exact number of troops, but a source said they had nearly tripled the existing force.
The AU has warned Comoran security forces to stay away from polling stations, as ballot-stuffing soldiers marred previous polls.
Azaly's candidate, Halidi, has promised to stick with the government's development plan donors agreed to finance last December.
Halidi's backers accuse Sambi of being a closet Islamic extremist who will introduce sharia law and woo governments disliked by Western donors, such as Iran.
But Sambi, who has his own television and radio station, accuses Azaly's government of failing to tackle poverty on a group of islands which barely produces anything and imports even staples like rice.
The Comoros export vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang, an essential oil.
A slump in the prices of these commodities has left it dependent on remittances from economic migrants to France and other countries, now the top foreign exchange earner.
Analysts say whoever wins faces the challenge of starting an economy virtually from scratch.
''There's almost zero production here,'' said one western diplomat.
Ninety-eight percent of people on the islands, located 300 km off the east African coast and once a haven for pirates robbing ships on route to India, are Sunni Muslim but practice a moderate brand of Islam.
The remaining 2 percent are Catholic.