By Tansa Musa
YAOUNDE (Reuters) - Voters in Cameroon head to the polls Sunday, with incumbent President Paul Biya tipped to extend his 29-year rule over the central African state by beating more than 20 rivals from a fragmented opposition.
The one-round vote comes just weeks after a smooth handover of power in Zambia showed that Africa can deliver peaceful political change through the ballot box.
But with Biya seen keeping his place among the clutch of African leaders with decades of rule to their name, the main suspense in Cameroon is whether the election will pass smoothly after allegations by rivals the vote is skewed against them.
Cameroon's last unrest was in 2008, when Biya's move to scrap term limits, and anger over food prices, led to street protests in which over 100 people died. But for most of the past three decades there has seen relative stability in a restive region.
Inaugurating the deep sea Kribi port due in the next few years to be a major hub for mining and other exports from the Gulf of Guinea, Biya reaffirmed his goal of setting Cameroon on the path to being an emerging nation by 2035.
"That is a country where democratic institutions are firmly established..., poverty will decline significantly, there will be stability and peace and prosperity. This can only be realised if I am re-elected," said Biya, 78.
Some observers speculate that Biya, if reelected, will use his new term to arrange a handover of power to an anointed successor. But his domination of the local political scene means there is currently no obvious candidate for that.
Aside from its oil, Cameroon is the region's main port and breadbasket, supplying Chad, Central African Republic, Congo Republic and Gabon. It hosts the Chad-Cameroon pipeline and shelters several thousand refugees from the region's conflicts.
Cameroon's media and opposition have criticised Biya for lax governance, allowing corruption, red tape and nepotism to fester. Average income per head stands at an annual $2,000 -- higher than most of the region -- but the IMF has described its forecast 3.8 percent growth this year as below potential.
Biya faces 22 candidates including veteran challenger John Fru Ndi of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) and Adamou Ndam Njoya of the Cameroon Democratic Union (UDC).
"At this point there is no threat that is mobilised to hold him up from reelection," said Mark Schroeder at consultancy Stratfor, adding that as the incumbent, Biya had access to more resources than his rivals and his allies have strong positions on key state organs such as the national election body.
In the last election in 2004, Biya scored just over 70 percent, while his closest rival, Fru Ndi, took 17 percent.
"I don't have anything to tell you except that I don't care who wins," said David Ngale, a 45-year-old taxi driver in the capital Yaounde. "Politicians are the same. They only fool us with sweet talk and (squander) our money."
Polling stations open at 8.00 am (0700 GMT) and close at 6.00 pm. The election body is barred from announcing preliminary results in advance of the validated final figures, so it may be days before the outcome is known.
(Additional reporting and writing by Bate Felix in Dakar; editing by Mark John)
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