The Republic of Congo’s top presidential opposition candidate Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, who was hospitalised on election day on Saturday, has died, a spokesman said on Monday.
Kolelas was seen as President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s strongest challenger, although analysts said there was little doubt the incumbent would win again and extend his 36-year rule.
The 61-year-old opposition politician had been flown to France for further treatment on Sunday but died shortly after landing in Paris, aides said.
Kolelas had skipped his final campaign event on Friday after telling reporters a day earlier that he feared he had malaria.
A video circulating on social media Saturday showed Kolelas wearing an oxygen mask and with a blood pressure cuff on his arm as he lay in a Brazzaville hospital bed.
“My dear compatriots, I am in trouble. I am fighting death,” the candidate says in a weak-sounding voice after removing his oxygen mask. “However, I ask you to stand up and vote for change. I would not have fought for nothing.”
Spokesman Justin Nzoloufoua confirmed his death Monday to The Associated Press, and said efforts were underway to repatriate Kolelas’ body to the capital Brazzaville. He declined to give the cause of death.
Some supporters said they doubted he had really died of Covid-19, but party leaders tried to quash conspiracy theories.
“Whether it was Covid or something else is not important to us. What matters is the future of the party,” said its secretary-general, Gaston Malanda.
Kolelas, the son of former prime minister Bernard Kolelas, was expected to again finish second to President Denis Sassou N’Guesso, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders with more than 36 years in office.
Sassou N’Guesso said Monday that Sunday’s vote had taken place without incident.
“I can therefore say that democracy is working in our country,” said the president.
An internet blackout across the country on election day continued on Monday.
Kolelas had been particularly critical of the incumbent leader before the election, declaring that Republic of Congo had become “a police state”.
Full results are not expected until later this week, but tallies from about 40% of the 86 districts showed Sassou Nguesso ahead, including some where he had won 100% of the vote, the electoral commission said.
Sassou N’Guesso is the third-longest serving president in Africa, ruling from 1979-1992 and then again since 1997 in this nation often overshadowed by its vast neighbor Congo.
The legal ramifications of a candidate dying after polls close but before the results are announced are not clear, said Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
“Given that all of the key institutions of state are under Sassou Nguesso’s control, we do not expect the matter to be referred to the constitutional court,” she said.
Republic of Congo, with a population of about 5.4 million people, has had fewer than 10,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 since the pandemic began, with 134 confirmed deaths.