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President vs Prime Minister: What’s at stake in Chad presidential election?

In News, World
May 06, 2024

Chadians head to the polls on Monday to elect a new president in what could be the nation’s most-watched election in three decades.

The polls will mark the end of a transition to democracy by the ruling military government, one of several currently in power in West and Central Africa. But some experts say the vote is just to formalise the military’s hold on power.

Chad has been in the throes of political upheaval since 2021, when interim President Mahamat Idriss Deby first seized power amid fierce resistance by opposition forces who challenged his legitimacy.

This February, the chaos crescendoed after government forces fatally shot Yaya Dillo – one of the strongest opposition figures – and his supporters at their party headquarters in the capital, N’Djamena.

At the same time, Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world, with at least 40 percent of the 17 million population living below the poverty line. The war in neighbouring Sudan has also pushed more than 500,000 people into Chad, adding further pressure even as fears of a spillover conflict simmer.

Chad’s army, reputed to be among the best in the region, commands influence across the troubled Sahel, where armed group incursions and a wave of coups have created regional rifts and diminished the standing of Western powers like France and the United States.

“[Chad] is a key security partner in the fight against [armed group] Boko Haram around Lake Chad,” said Dan Eizenga, a researcher with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). “So, the electoral process in Chad has significant ramifications not just for Chad, but for several countries.”

France, a key backer of Chad’s current government, enjoys a large military presence in the country. However, the US appears on shaky ground. Last month, the Pentagon announced it would pull out some 75 troops stationed in the country, but added the decision could change after the elections – signalling the importance of the May 6 polls beyond the continent.

A second round of votes is expected on June 22, with provisional results due on July 7.

Here’s all you need to know about the candidates and state of play ahead of the Monday vote:

Mahamat Deby talks on campaign stage
President Mahamet Idriss Deby speaks to a crowd in Chad’s Moundou district on April 25, 2024 [Joris Bolomey/AFP]

Who is running?

The country’s Constitutional Council approved 10 candidates in March, although fierce criticism abounds for the barring of some opposition figures because of “irregularities” in their applications.

The main candidate, General Mahamat Idriss Deby, is the transitional president who came to power under the ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement party (MPS). He will run under the “United Chad” coalition, which consists of several other pro-government parties.

Deby, 39, took office in April 2021, after his father, President Idriss Deby, died in action while fighting a rebel group in the north of the country. Until his death, Deby had ruled for more than 30 years.

Following the older Deby’s death, the military suspended the constitution and announced a decree establishing a Transitional Military Council to lead the country for 18 months and designating Mahamat Deby as head of the Council, and thus, head of state.

Deby is one of Chad’s youngest leaders, but his critics, unimpressed, have criticised him since day one for grabbing power illegally, and have asked him to step down. According to the constitution, the head of parliament ought to rule in the case of the president’s death.

Instead, Deby extended the transition period by several months to October 10, 2024. In a bid to legitimise his position, experts say, Deby signed peace agreements with major opposition figures in 2022.

He also proposed changes to the constitution in a referendum. In December 2023, Chadians voted “yes” to new measures such as the creation of local councils to devolve power from the centre; a presidential term limit reduced from six to five years, and a reduced age limit from 40 to 35 years, as well as the strengthening of the electoral agency by making it independent of the government.

People at a polling station
People wait at a polling station to cast their votes during Chad’s constitutional referendum in December 2023 [File: Denis Sassou Gueipeur/AFP]

Who are the main opposition figures?

Deby’s three-year rule is reminiscent of his father’s style: iron-fisted and replete with crackdowns on the opposition, such as the protests of October 2022.

Major opposition leaders have been harassed, or in worse cases, killed, like Yaya Dillo, who was a cousin of Deby. Saleh Deby Itno, another one of Deby’s relatives who was allied with Dillo, was jailed.

Meanwhile, Deby has aimed to co-opt other opposition members, appointing them to high positions, a strategy that the older Deby also wielded many times.

The main approved opposition candidates for the elections include:

Suces Masra speaks at a campaign rally
Chad’s presidential candidate and Prime Minister Succes Masra delivers a speech during a campaign meeting in Moundou [File: Joris Bolomey/AFP]

Succes Masra – Deby’s appointed prime minister and a Harvard and Oxford-educated economist, Masra was the strongest opposition figure until his appointment in January 2024, campaigning under the Transformers Party (Les Transformateurs). He was a member of the vocal opposition coalition Wakit Tama, which had started to protest the long rule of the older Deby in 2021. Following Deby senior’s death and the takeover by his son, Masra led opposition protests against what was called a “coup”. He fled the country to the US after the army opened fire on hundreds of protesters in N’Djamena on October 20, 2022, after Deby announced he would run in elections, rather than hand over power. At least 50 people were killed.

However, Masra returned to Chad in December 2023, after peace talks with Deby’s government, overseen by the regional Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) bloc. He was appointed prime minister on January 1, 2024 – a move intensely criticised by other opposition groups, who said Masra had joined the military government. On May 6, Masra will face his boss and run under the Justice and Equality (Justice-Egalite) coalition. It’s the first time in the country’s history that a president and a prime minister will tussle at the polls, and there are speculations around whether Masra is fronting for Deby.

“Many observers suggest that they may have some sort of gentleman’s deal where whoever wins will name the other their prime minister and thus preserve the status quo,” Eizenga of ACSS said. “Several opposition parties … claim that Masra provides the illusion of electoral competition.”

Albert Pahimi Padacke – A two-time former prime minister and one-time presidential candidate under the older Deby, Albert will run under the semi-opposition RNDT-Le Reveil party or the National Rally of Chadian Democrats, which allied with the older Deby’s political party at the time. He came second in the last presidential elections in April 2021.

The other candidates are:

Alladoum Djarma Baltazar – a politician and founder of the Chadian Socialist Action Party for Renewal or Action pour le renouveau du Tchad (ASTRE). He also ran for president in the April 2021 elections which the older Deby won for a sixth time, just days before his death.

Theophile Bongoro Bebzoune – a teacher and president of the Party for the Rally and Equity in Chad or Rassemblement pour la démocratie et le progrès (PRET). He is a member of Deby’s Transitional Council.

Lydie Beassemda – the first and only female candidate, and the current minister of education. Beassemda will run under the Party for Democracy and Independence or Parti pour la drmocratie et l’independance integrales. She first ran in 2021, but received only three percent of the vote.

Mansiri Lopsekreo – will run under the Elites party (Les Élites). He is an engineer and first-time candidate with growing support in northern and eastern Chad.

Brice Mbaimon Guedmbaye – is running in presidential elections for the third time. He will compete under the banner of the Movement of Chadian Patriots for the Republic or Mouvement des patriotes tchadiens pour la Republique (MPTR).

Yacine Abdermane Sakine – a 39-year-old banker who is popular with the youth. Although running under the Reformist Party (Parti Reformiste), Yacine is also a member of the opposition coalition Wakit Tama and was arrested during protests after the military takeover in 2021.

Nasra Djimasngar – an academic who is running for the first time under his New Day (Un Jour Nouvel) party.

Demonstrators shout slogan during a protest in N’amena on October 20, 2022. - Clashes erupted in the Chadian capital N'Djamena between police and hundreds of demonstrators at a banned protest over the ruling junta's grip on power, an AFP journalist saw. (Photo by AFP)
Demonstrators protest in N’Djamena in October 2022 over the ruling government’s grip on power [File: AFP]

A free and fair vote?

Some experts say the elections are merely a formality to help Deby assure his hold on power. Since the killing of Dillo and the co-option of Masra, there has not been enough time for another strong opposition figure to emerge.

“Just the advantage of incumbency alone in this context makes this Deby’s race to lose, and that’s assuming that it occurs by Chad’s electoral laws,” Eizenga said. “Consequently, Masra and Deby are really the only candidates expected to receive any significant portion of the votes.”

Although Deby’s government set up the National Election Management Agency and Constitutional Council in January, as part of new reforms agreed to during peace talks with opposition members, critics say these agencies will tow the ruling party line as some of its commissioners were selected by President Deby.

Chad’s economy, already poor, has shrunk in the past decade – its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, for instance, fell from $961 in 2014 to $710 in 2019, according to the World Bank. Insecurity and an overreliance on oil revenue are the major drivers. While oil is Chad’s main resource, production is set to decline sharply because its reserves are limited.

With Deby set to win the election, Chad could see another decades-long strongman ruler, as well as a stagnant economy.

“I suspect that we can look back at the last six years or so and get a good idea of what the next six years will look like: essentially, a heavily tilted economy [and] high levels of corruption that benefit more or less the same networks of politically connected folks,” Eizenga said.

There are hopes, however, that Prime Minister Masra, a world-class economist, could influence more investments in the country’s education and health sectors.

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