December 3, 2015 / 9:37 AM / 4 years ago

Seychelles presidential race starts, economy in focus

* Archipelago economy seen growing more than 4 pct in 2015

* President James Michel been in power since 2004

* Main rival wants president limited to two terms

By George Thande

VICTORIA, Dec 3 (Reuters) - The Seychelles began three days of voting on Thursday in a presidential election in which the incumbent’s bid for a third term has been challenged by a rival who says economic growth on the Indian Ocean archipelago has favoured the rich.

The nation of 115 islands and 93,000 people relies on tourism but also has expanding fisheries and financial services industries. The economy is forecast to expand by more than 4 percent in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“People, especially the thriving business community, appreciate the big turnaround in our national economy,” incumbent James Michel, 71, told the Nation newspaper this week in an interview published on its website.

His main rival, Wavel Ramkalawan, said in an interview with the same paper that the wealth gap was growing, the education system failing and drugs and other social ills rising.

“The income disparity has increased and many people are worse off financially than they were four years ago,” he said.

Ramkalawan and his Seychelles National Party also say no president should serve three terms, currently allowed by the constitution.

It echoes a debate in many nations on the African mainland about leadership term limits.

“We have stated very clearly that a president should not serve for more than two terms,” Ramkalawan, a 54-year old Anglican priest, told journalists.

There are six candidates in the race. Alongside Michel and Ramkalawan, they include the first woman to run for the former British colony’s top job, lawyer-turned-politician Alexia Amesbury.

Michel, who leads the Parti Lepep, or People’s Party in Creole, that has been in power for 38 years, is seen as the frontrunner. If he fails to secure more than 50 percent of votes in the first round, it will go to a run-off, experts say.

First round results are expected to emerge late on Saturday, the last day of voting across the archipelago, with some of the islands lying hundreds of kilometres (miles) apart.

Michel was part of a group that seized power in a bloodless coup in 1977. His party has won elections since 1993 when multi-party politics resumed.

Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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