BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — Voters in the tiny West African nation of Gambia cast marbles Thursday in an election widely expected to keep the country's ruler of more than two decades in power despite a unified challenge from the opposition.
Polls closed at 5 p.m. and election workers were expected to work late into the night tallying results.
Earlier in the day, after voting with his wife in the capital, Banjul, President Yahya Jammeh predicted a decisive win.
"This will be the biggest landslide in the history of the country," said Jammeh, who was met with cheers as he walked toward a sport utility vehicle that whisked him away from his polling site. The president refused to comment when asked whether he would concede in the event of defeat.
His challenger Adama Barrow said he believed Gambians were ready for change after more than 20 years of the Jammeh regime.
"He is not going to be re-elected — his era is finished," Barrow said.
Most voters refused to comment on which candidate they were backing. "I have to be careful of what I say. Yes, everybody has his or her own opinion to say whatever or do whatever he or she wants to do, so we wait until polling is closed and sit at home and listen to the results," said voter Victor Clayton-Johnson.
Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994 and then swept elections in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 after a 2002 constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits. Critics say those elections were not free and fair and accuse his regime of corruption and flagrant human rights abuses.
The president's supporters praise his efforts to boost economic development in the small country that is dependent on tourism and agriculture.
While the U.S. government praised Gambia for "high voter turnout and generally peaceful conditions," it cited areas that remain a concern.
"In the run-up to the election, we did have some concerns about undue pressure, intimidation," as well as the disruption of internet services, phone services, and other factors that may have disrupted the flow of information to voters, Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman, told reporters Thursday.
Barrow, a former businessman and United Democratic Party leader, emerged this year as the candidate for an alliance of eight opposition parties. Former ruling party deputy Mama Kandeh is running for the Gambia Democratic Congress, the only opposition party not in the coalition.
More than 880,000 voters were registered to participate at more than 1,400 polling stations, where they were asked to place a marble in either a green, silver or purple drum depending upon their choice.
The African Union sent a handful of observers to this country of 1.9 million but there are no observers from the European Union or the West African regional bloc ECOWAS because the Gambian government did not grant them accreditation.
Jammeh said before the vote that he would not allow even peaceful demonstrations, dismissing them as "loopholes that are used to destabilize African governments."
In a statement Thursday, rights groups criticized the circumstances under which the vote took place, especially the cutting of internet services and international calls.
All internet services were blocked at about 8 p.m. Wednesday night, while messaging services such as Whatsapp and Viber were blocked weeks before the vote, Human Rights Watch said.
"This is an unjustified and crude attack on the right to freedom of expression in Gambia, with mobile internet services and text messaging cut off on polling day," said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.
Associated Press writers Lekan Oyekanmi in Banjul and Abdoulie John in Dakar, Senegal, and Vivian Salama in Washington contributed to this report.