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Polling stations have opened in Chad for a presidential election in which incumbent Idriss Deby is widely expected to extend his 30-year rule despite growing signs of popular discontent and criticism over his handling of oil wealth.

A key ally in the West’s campaign against armed groups in the Sahel region, Deby, 68, came to power spearheading the rebellion that overthrew longtime military ruler Hissene Habre in 1990.

He won elections in 1996 and again in 2001 before pushing through a constitutional change in 2018 that could allow him to stay in power until 2033.

He has relied on a firm grip over state institutions and one of the region’s most capable militaries to maintain power. He said recently he knew in advance that he would win again “as I have done for the last 30 years”.

Other candidates in Sunday’s election include 55-year-old former Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke, and Felix Nialbe Romadoumngar, 64, who is officially the “leader of the opposition” as his URD party has eight seats in the National Assembly.

Lydie Beassemda, 54, a former minister of agricultural production, is the first woman to run for president in Chad’s history.

Seven other candidates were rejected by the Supreme Court and three withdrew, including longtime opposition politician Saleh Kebzabo, who quit in protest over violence by the security forces.

Kebzabo and opposition leader Ngarlejy Yorongar pulled out of the race after a violent arrest attempt of another candidate, Yaya Dillo, in late February.

Deby flanked by his wife Hilal waves as he arrives to attend his election campaign rally in N’djamena [File: Marco Longari/AFP]

Protests against Deby’s administration have mounted since February with a coalition of NGOs, labour unions and opposition political parties calling for a change in political leadership and an end to social and economic injustices.

Authorities have “ruthlessly” responded with crackdowns on protesters, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week.

On Thursday, the United States urged Chad’s election supervisors and courts “to ensure these elections are conducted freely, fairly, and transparently”.

The United Nations has called for an investigation after security forces went to arrest Dillo, a former minister in Deby’s government.

Dillo and other witnesses said security forces killed the politician’s mother and son and wounded several others. The government has said Dillo’s son was not killed in the raid.

Late on Thursday, the government said it had arrested several opposition politicians accused of planning “terrorist attacks” against the electoral commission’s headquarters and the ransacking of polling stations.

This content was originally published here.

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