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By Serena Chaudhry
GABORONE (Reuters) - Voting started on Friday in Botswana's election which is expected to see President Ian Khama remain in power despite rising discontent over the economic state of the world's biggest diamond producer.
The southern African nation has been hit by recession as a global slowdown cuts demand for diamonds, which account for close to 40 percent of the economy.
The crisis has forced Botswana, seen as one of Africa's best-run countries with a history of budget surpluses and the region's strongest currency, to plunge itself into debt.
Gross domestic product is widely forecast to shrink 10 percent, and the country had to borrow $1.5 billion from the African Development Bank in June to plug a massive budget shortfall.
An independent electoral commission official told Reuters that voting had begun.
Fierce infighting is expected to reduce support for Khama's ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and help the opposition.
Khama has been in heated arguments with the BDP's chairman and suspended the party's secretary general, Gomolemo Motswaledi, for allegedly undermining his authority.
The row has intensified charges of autocracy and populism against Khama, a UK-trained army lieutenant-general who has said politics was never his first choice of career.
"Party politics is dirty and divisive by nature, and I haven't yet discovered anything enjoyable about it," Khama said in an interview with South Africa's Financial Mail weekly.
While the feuding may cut support for the BDP, its main opposition, the Botswana National Front (BNF), does not have enough grassroots support to provide a serious challenge. It also has to contend with a splinter group, the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).
The BDP won 77.2 percent of the vote in the last election in 2004. In the recently dissolved parliament, it held 44 of the 57 seats, while the BNF had 12 and the BCP had 1.
Many voters feel the economic crisis should not be directly blamed on the BDP, and few expect the BDP to lose control over the nation of 1.8 million people.
"I do not see any change in power. The BDP, although divided as it is, will still win this election," said Lawrence Ookeditse, a political analyst at the University of Botswana.
(Reporting by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Charles Dick)