YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — Voters slowly trickled into polls Sunday for a presidential election widely expected to take the Central African nation's longtime leader into his fourth decade in power.
Some voters even left polling stations without casting a ballot after failing to find their names on voter rolls, or because they were unable to pick up voter ID cards.
A disjointed opposition, an aloof electorate and a ballot bursting with a record 23 candidates for a single-round poll make victory for the incumbent, Paul Biya, a foregone conclusion.
"I have no time for politics. All what you call an election is a masquerade. Everyone can see that there's already a winner," said 26-year-old trader in Yaounde, Donald Borogue, who said he planned to work out instead of vote.
Biya's key challenger is longtime opposition leader, Ni John Fru Ndi, who he has faced before. Biya swept the last election in 2004 with a landslide 70 percent of ballots. Fru Ndi followed with a mere 17 percent.
Polls in the capital Yaounde opened nearly three hours late and to low turnout. Officials arrived late to polling stations and many Cameroonians were still in church service in Yaounde, witnesses said. Some polling stations only had a handful of voters in line toward mid-afternoon, and the streets of the capital were deserted.
Officials opened polls on time in the commercial hub Douala, but voters started arriving nearly an hour late. The opposition stronghold boasts nearly 1 million registered voters, but turnout remained timid hours into polling.
"I am going to do sports right now because I don't see any reason for me to vote. I tried to vote, but I couldn't," said 33-year-old Yaounde resident, Kevin Akong, who said he had tried since Friday to obtain his voter card.
Other voters in Douala told The Associated Press they had been inadvertently double-registered on voter rolls and obtained multiple voter cards, which could enable them to vote multiple times.
Lead opposition candidate, Ni John Fru Ndi, has denounced what he said are reports of "disorder" and "intimidation" at polling stations.
"We won't tolerate this rigging this time again in Cameroon. I urge Cameroonians to vote and secure their votes, but this doesn't mean that I'm preaching violence," Fru Ndi told AP after casting is ballot in the main northwestern town of Bamenda.
The ink used to mark fingers of those who have voted is not indelible, opening up the possibility of multiple "voting for hire," Fru Ndi said.
Two voters in Yaounde demonstrated for an AP reporter that they were easily able to wash off the fresh ink with saliva.
Electoral commission officials have declined to comment on alleged irregularities until polls close.
Casting his ballot in Yaounde Sunday morning, Biya called on Cameroonians to be "indulgent with any imperfections during the elections."
"The world is not a perfect place, but let's be positive, for there has been no intention of fraud. We're for transparency and free elections. Let Cameroonians be free and freely vote to forge their destiny," Biya said.
During campaigning, Fru Ndi alluded to "Arab Spring"-like protests if the elections are not free and fair.
Food and living costs continue to spiral in Cameroon, and unemployment has reached a crushing 60 percent, according to government statistics. However, Cameroonians say they have little taste for revolution during the electoral period.
"Instead of asking for change through the gun, through the streets or through violence, I want change through the ballot box, which is the civilized way of democracy. And so, I'm voting for peace," said Anita Assomba after she cast her vote in the capital, echoing a common presidential slogan, "Vote Biya, Vote for Peace."
One of Africa's remaining strongmen, Biya has won every election since he was bequeathed power in 1982 by what was then the country's only political party. Since then, he has introduced modest democratic reforms, allowing multiple political blocs and some increased personal freedoms.
Taciturn and adept at outmaneuvering political opponents, Biya maintains a tight grip on power. He has also kept a lid on simmering ethnic, linguistic and religious rifts in Cameroon, no small feat in a neighborhood of Africa dominated by civil conflict and armed rebellion, analysts say.
In 1992, Biya won Cameroon's first-ever multiparty presidential elections, but the ballot was internationally denounced as fraudulent.
Tensions have flared in the run-up to Cameroon's Sunday vote. Ten days before the poll, unidentified gunmen in military fatigues blockaded a bridge in Douala and fired live rounds, while brandishing signs calling on Biya to step down.
Just two days later, police arrested 126 protesters seeking independence for the country's English-speaking regions. Activists have urged residents of those western regions to boycott the poll.
The International Crisis Group expressed concern that public frustration with the government could spark election-related violence in Cameroon.
The government has deployed additional security forces nationwide. The American embassy in Cameroon has warned of "heightened political tensions" during the electoral period, saying past demonstrations have turned violent and prompted "severe crackdowns by Cameroonian security forces."
In 2008, Biya eliminated term limits from the constitution to pave the way for his re-election bid, fueling already raging riots over soaring food prices that killed at least 40 people.
However, analysts say it is economic rather than political factors that drive unrest in Cameroon, and the risk of widespread unrest during the elections is minimal.
The governor of the Littoral region, speaking from the regional capital Douala, told the Associated Press that voting was unfolding peacefully.
International observers from the International Organization of the Francophonie, the Commonwealth Secretariat and Transparency International are at polling stations nationwide.
Polls close at 6 p.m. and the Constitutional Council has two weeks to declare results.
Associated Press writers Divine Ntaryike in Douala, Cameroon, and Anne Look in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.