Polls have opened in the Republic of Congo’s presidential election that is boycotted by the main opposition party and attacked by critics as tilted towards veteran leader Denis Sassou Nguesso.
Voting centres opened at 7am (06:00 GMT) and will close at 5pm (16:00 GMT).
More than 2.5 million voters have registered to take part in the election which Nguesso, 77, is widely expected to win against six contenders.
The list of contenders is led by economist and 2016 presidential runner-up Guy-Brice Parfait Kolelas, who was hospitalised on Saturday.
Kolelas’s campaign did not say what illness had struck the 60-year-old but a family member told the Associated Press he had been diagnosed with coronavirus.
Nguesso, a former paratrooper, first rose to power in 1979 and has since accumulated 36 years in office, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.
Meanwhile, Kolelas posted an online video showing himself in a bed, 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.
In late January, the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), the country’s main opposition party, said it had decided not to field a candidate in the election, arguing conditions were not conducive for polls and that an election would only lead to more divisions in the country.
Instead, UPADS – the party of former president Pascal Lissouba – proposed a transitional period and polls in 2023, with long-serving Nguesso not on the ballot.
The Catholic Church has also raised questions about the fairness of the vote after the government rejected its request to deploy more than 1,000 election observers.
Mavoungou was meant to be part of a team observing Sunday’s presidential election but he told Al Jazeera all church observers have been blocked from monitoring the polls.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from the capital Brazzaville, said authorities have blocked internet access.
“The government’s information minister told us that they did the same during the last election because they had information about a threat of an armed insurrection. But rights groups have said it is because the government is trying to hide what it’s doing,” Webb said.
There was also heavy presence of security forces on the streets of Brazzaville as voters went to the polls.
“Soldiers are visible today. They are out on the streets. The roads are closed. No one is allowed to drive around. People are only allowed to move around by foot,” Webb added.