Moroni: Voters on the chronically unstable Indian archipelago of the Comoros go to the polls Sunday in parliamentary elections seen as a test of the popularity of a former leader Abdallah Sambi who is vying to return to power.
The vote is the first in a cycle of legislative and local government polls culminating in presidential elections next year.
In power between 2006 and 2011, Sambi, who tightened ties with Islamic nations when he was in office, has dominated the political discourse in the run-up to the polls in this country of 735,000 inhabitants.
He wants to return to the president`s office in this former French archipelago which has a long and chequered history of coups, even though he is not eligible for re-election as yet.
After 20 coups or attempted coups in the four decades since independence in 1975, a gentleman`s agreement was reached to rotate the presidency between the three islands.
Under that deal, Sambi cannot run for office next year because it will not be his island`s turn. But he is determined to change that rule, if his Juwa party wins the majority parliamentary seats.
Sambi wrapped up his party`s campaign Friday with a rally staged in grand style after the day`s Muslim prayers.
He signed off with an anti Charlie Hebdo remark: "We are not Charlie, we are for the prophet," in this predominantly Muslim country.
Around a quarter-of-a million voters are registered to cast ballots for federal parliamentary members before a second round scheduled for February 22 when they will also elect local government councillors.
The four-year mandate for the current federal parliament was meant to have expired in April this year but was extended to the end of last year.
This year`s election has attracted huge numbers of candidates, but was marred by blunders in the distribution of voters cards.
Foreign donors will want to see the election run smoothly in a bid to spruce up the image of the small country whose tropical beaches and coconut trees resemble an impoverished version of the touristic Seychelles.
The economy posted an average three percent growth in the three years up to 2013
But a population boom, fuelled by an average five children per woman rate, puts pressure on the islands` meagre resources.
A total of 878 candidates are vying for the ballots of 275,348 voters.
Among them, Bahassani Ahmed, a 35-year-old French trained lawyer.
He believes Sunday`s elections will be a rehearsal of the 2016 presidential but is angry that Sambi`s ambitions to run again for office has diverted attention from real election issues.
He lambasted Sambi as "a manipulator, he promised the Comorans heaven, but nothing came out of that." Promises of education, and hospitals, came to "nothing, and (all we had were) shady businessmen coming to plunder the Comoros".
Comorans in the diaspora - estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000 living in France - cannot vote although they play a key role.
With the economy weakened by the political instability, the country depends heavily on the diaspora remittances, which are roughly 25 percent of the GDP.
President Ikililou Dhoinine`s five-year term ends in May 2016.