Polls closed in the Congo Republic late on Sunday with the incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso widely expected to extend his 36-year rule despite an economic crisis in the Central African oil-producing nation.
The president's main rival, former government minister Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, was in the hospital with COVID-19 and could be evacuated to France, Kolelas' campaign said.
In a video message said to be filmed on Friday (March 19) Kolelas encouraged Congolese to go to the polls and vote.
"I am fighting against death, but I ask you to rise up, go and vote for change so that I will not be fighting in vain," he said lying in the hospital bed.
The government appeared to be leaving nothing to chance. There was an internet blackout across the country on Sunday, internet monitor NetBlocks said.
Sassou, a 77-year old former paratrooper, rose to power in 1979. He lost Congo's first multi-party elections in 1992 but reclaimed the presidency in 1997 after a civil war. He later changed the constitution to extend term limits.
Turnout appeared light in the capital Brazzaville throughout the day, a Reuters witness said. Poll workers began to count ballots shortly after voting ended at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT).
Results are expected to be published within four days. If none of the seven candidates secures more than 50% of votes, the second round will take place 15 days later.
Sassou Nguesso is widely expected to win a fourth term in office despite an ongoing economic crisis and accusations of having mismanaged the country's oil revenues.
UN and EU observers were not invited to monitor Sunday's election, and the interior ministry refused to allow the Catholic Church's 1,100 observers to take part.
Main challenger 'battling against death'
A day before polls opened, Kolelas, 66, the main opposition challenger, posted a video message online showing himself in a sickbed, declaring he was "battling against death" after taking off a respiratory mask.
"Rise up as one person... I'm fighting on my deathbed, you too fight for your change," he urged supporters, saying the election was "about the future of your children" before replacing his mask.
Campaign spokesman Cyr Mayanda told the Associated Press on Sunday that Kolelas's condition was stable, but that plans were underway for a medical evacuation to France for further treatment.
Doubts and boycotts
Congo's Catholic Church episcopal conference has already expressed "serious reservations" about the ballot's transparency.
The largest opposition group, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy or UPADS, is boycotting the poll.
UPADS – the group of former president Pascal Lissouba, who died in France last August – is the only opposition party to have a parliamentary group in the current national assembly.
Flanked by its giant neighbour the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, the former French colony has oil reserves and most of its budget comes from petroleum revenue.
But its economy is in a slump, hurt by a collapse in world crude oil prices, long-standing debt, and the pandemic, as well as being saddled with a reputation for corruption.
On the campaign trail, Sassou Nguesso focused on agricultural development and portrayed himself as a defender of Congo's youth – the average age of the population of five million is just 19, according to UN figures.
Winner of every election since 1997
After first coming to power in 1979, Sassou Nguesso was forced to introduce multi-party elections in 1991 and was defeated at the ballot box a year later.
But he returned to power in 1997 following a prolonged civil war.
He has won every election since, which the opposition have mostly slammed as fraudulent.
A constitutional amendment in 2015, which ended a ban on presidential candidates aged over 70 and scrapped a two-term limit, allowed Sassou Nguesso to run again a year later.
Two rivals who contested the 2016 results – former army general Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and ex-minister Andre Okombi Salissa – were later jailed for 20 years, effectively sidelining the opposition.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)