President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo has been in power for 36 years, and is likely to continue his rule despite being challenged by six opponents.

President and candidate for the presidential elections Denis Sassou Nguesso addresses his supporters at his last election rally in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on March 19, 2021.
President and candidate for the presidential elections Denis Sassou Nguesso addresses his supporters at his last election rally in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on March 19, 2021. (Hereward Holland / Reuters)

Polls have opened in the Republic of Congo, with President Denis Sassou Nguesso widely expected to extend his 36-year rule despite an ongoing economic crisis and accusations of having mismanaged the country's oil revenues.

With his grip on power as firm as ever, diplomats and analysts alike doubt any of Sassou's six opponents will unseat him, instead suggesting voter turnout as a better barometer of his popularity.

"There will be no surprises in this election," one Brazzaville-based diplomat said, requesting anonymity so as to speak candidly.

"People are traumatised. They're not happy, but there's no alternative."

United Nations and European Union observers were not invited to monitor the election, and the interior ministry refused to allow the Catholic Church's 1,100 observers to take part.

Observers are optimistic that polling will play out peacefully, however, unlike the 2016 presidential election that was marred by sporadic violence.

An accord signed with opposition fighters in 2017 has spurred hopes for a peaceful aftermath.

Oil is the lifeblood of Congo's economy, making up three quarters of state revenues.

But the country's 5.4 million citizens, 41 percent of whom the World Bank says live below the global poverty line, have little to show for it.

Extreme poverty has only increased since the last election, according to the World Bank, as oil revenues have sharply declined amid slumping global prices.

Meanwhile, the country's opaque national oil company and other key private and public sector institutions remain under the control of a group of Sassou's closest associates, transparency campaign Global Witness has said.

"All our money is outside the country," said Mathias Dzon, a former finance minister and presidential hopeful on the last day of campaigning on Friday. "Do you know which accounts? In private accounts."

The economic crisis, kindled in part by the government's mountain of debt to oil traders like Glencore and Trafigura, will pose challenges to whoever inherits the country's highest office.

"The economic situation has been difficult since 2014, but we have faith, unshakeable faith to propel our country on the path to development," Sassou said at his final rally in Brazzaville.

Results are expected to be published within four days of voting. If no candidate secures more than 50 percent of votes, a second round will take place 15 days later.

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