By DIVINE NTARYIKEAssociated Press
DOUALA, Cameroon (AP) - The party of Cameroon's entrenched ruler Paul Biya won 56 of the 70 contested seats in the nation's first-ever senatorial election, the Supreme Court announced.
Supreme Court President Alexis Dipanda Mouelle said Monday that Biya's Cameroon Peoples' Democratic Party scored 73 percent of the vote, winning seats in eight of the country's 10 administrative regions. The opposition Social Democratic Front received 17 percent, with 14 seats in just two regions. The opposition claimed vote-rigging but international observers said instances of vote-buying and intimidation were too few to change the overall outcome of the ballot.
According to the constitution, the 80-year-old Biya, in power since 1982, gets to appoint the remaining 30 members of the legislative body, ensuring total control of the newly-created 100-seat Senate.
Its creation was mandated by the 1996 constitution but was put off for 17 years, with the ruling party citing lack of funding and other reasons. The constitution stipulates that in the event of a vacancy at the helm of the state, the leader of the Senate will run the nation for a period of 40 days before new elections. The head of the Senate will be elected by majority vote during their first plenary session next month.
In recent years, Biya changed the constitution to allow himself to run for life. He most recently won re-election in a poll that was widely criticized in 2011, and has indicated that he plans to run again in 2018, when he'll be 86. It's raised fears of instability among the international investors who have flocked to Cameroon to get a piece of the country's petroleum riches. Neighboring nations where longtime rulers died in office have spiraled into violence, including in Guinea where the death of dictator Lansana Conte in 2008 was immediately followed by a military coup.
Critics say the new Senate simply perpetuates Biya's grip on power: His party already accounts for 153 of the 180 members in the National Assembly.
Observers from the African Union acknowledged that vote-buying had occurred, though they said that the instances did not impact the outcome of the April 14 poll.
"We think that on the whole, the elections unfolded hitch-free. Of course there were cases of vote-buying and intimidation, but these were too isolated to have an impact on the overall results," Edem Kodjo, head of an African Union observation mission, said soon after the poll.
Despite the limited representation by the opposition, the creation of the Senate was applauded as a step forward.
"We should be happy after 17 years of grumbling by the opposition, that the Senate is finally in place. It may be good or bad, but it is there and it is now left for us to work towards changing its make-up," said Jean De Dieu Momo, leader of the opposition Party for Democracy and Development of Cameroon.
Ni John Fru Ndi, leader of the Social Democratic Front and Biya's most significant rival, issued a statement saying: "Though the elections were choked with fraud ... setting up the Senate is a sign of progress for Cameroon's democracy."
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