JOHANNESBURG — A movement to coronate President Yahya Jammeh as King of Gambia may have lost steam, but this ruler of 17 years who claims he can cure AIDS and infertility is all but certain to remain in power after Thursday's vote.

The 46-year-old president already has removed term limits from the constitution, and has told his supporters that neither an election nor a military coup can shake his grip on power.

"It is only the Almighty Allah, who made it possible for me to come to power in 1994 in a bloodless coup, who can make this possible," he told cheering supporters earlier this year. "So anybody who thinks that the opposition are going to win the forthcoming elections is daydreaming."

On Wednesday, the regional bloc ECOWAS said the political environment in Gambia was not conducive to a free and fair vote. It cited "an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation."

Abdoulaye Saine, a U.S.-based expert on Gambian politics, said voter apathy is also very high in Gambia, a sliver of a country on Africa's western coast that is best known as a beach holiday destination for Europeans.

"Many Gambians are basically staying home out of fear that it might be violent, but they're also just disinterested particularly because they believe Jammeh is going to win," said Saine, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio. "I am hoping the election goes off peacefully and the armed forces do not go out as they have done in the past intimidating people."

Leading opposition candidate Ousainou Darboe has picked up some key support in the final days of the campaign, drawing an endorsement from the party that ruled Gambia from independence until the 1994 coup. A prominent human rights lawyer also has returned from exile to campaign for him.

Observers from the African Union, Commonwealth and European Union are monitoring Thursday's vote in this nation of nearly 2 million.

ECOWAS, though, said it would no longer be sending an observer mission because of the current political conditions. In a statement, the bloc said it hoped to work with the government "to create a level playing field for future elections."

The president's supporters credit him with developing infrastructure across this former British colony — building roads, schools and hospitals. Still, Gambia ranks 168 out of 187 nations in this year's Human Development Index (HDI).

The government also has clamped down on journalists and opponents in recent years, according to Amnesty International and other rights groups.

"It is a country and a population gripped by fear," Saine said. "People who stand up to him are often carted off to jail, tortured and then when they come out they are broken in spirit and body and die shortly thereafter."

Jammeh — whose name appears on his website as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh — first took power at the age of 29 after a 1994 coup he calls the "historic revolution." He was elected president two years later.

Jammeh draws such a devoted following among his party's youth supporters that the opposition has accused them of intimidation, citing a poster that reads: "We will not only vote for him in 2011, we are ready to die for him."

"What they want is to create an atmosphere of fear, increase political tensions, with a risk of provoking a violent election campaign," said Darboe, the top opposition candidate.

Independent Electoral Commission Communication Officer Joe Kolley said their message "can also be translated as the expression of a full support for their candidate."

Jammeh said he wasn't even going to campaign for his re-election this year, but he then went on a 10-day national "thank you tour" after his mother urged him to do so in a nationally televised interview.

Other African leaders have ruled nearly twice as long as Jammeh, but he's grabbed plenty of international attention for claiming in 2007 to have developed a cure for AIDS that involved an herbal body rub and bananas. While Jammeh includes the title Dr. in his name, he does not hold a medical license.

Jammeh drew swift condemnation from activists after he insisted that patients stop taking their antiretroviral medications so his cure could have an effect. Earlier this year, he marked the fourth anniversary of his "herbal breakthrough."

In 2009, his administration rounded up nearly 1,000 people accused of being witches and forced them to drink an unidentified liquid. Some developed serious kidney problems and two people died, according to Amnesty International.

And this year, he's claimed to have treated hundreds of infertile women with an herbal dose that he says is "no ordinary medication." Still, he tells them its success ultimately depends on "the will of God."

On Election Day, Jammeh will face Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and Hamat Bah, the candidate of a four-party United Front.

Many believe the opposition leaders are their own worst enemy, though, because they did not form an alliance, said Abdoulie Sey, the former editor of the now-banned Independent newspaper.

Doing so "may have sent a positive signal to a lot of apathetic voters who would have been inspired to vote," he said.

Jaded voters aren't expecting a surprise outcome either.

"These elections cannot be fair. You cannot compare the financial power of the incumbent with that of the opposition," said S. Camara, a young Gambian operating an Internet cafe in Serrekunda who declined to give his first name fearing recrimination. "Elections are about money."

Associated Press writer Abdoulie John in Banjul, Gambia contributed to this report.


Gambian President Yahya Jammeh's website: