Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for the fourth time after winning a landslide victory in the first round of voting in the east African country, according to preliminary counts reported by French media on Saturday.

The 68-year-old, who has been in power since 1999, polled around 87 per cent of the vote with the closest opposition candidate managing to win around 7 per cent, Radio France International reported.

It will be the fourth term for Guelleh at the head of the strategically important Horn of Africa country that hosts thousands of foreign troops in military bases.

Guelleh had been widely expected to defeat his main challenger, Omar Elmi Khaireh, who represents an opposition coalition.

Several districts reported "Soviet-style" levels of success for the ruling People's Rally for Progress party, according to RFI, with endorsement results of close to 100 per cent in parts of the southern region of Dikhil, the party's traditional stronghold.

Guelleh won the 2011 election with 80 per cent of the vote after parliament altered the constitution to allow him to extend his rule.

He is Djibouti's second president since independence from France in 1977. He succeeded his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon in 1999.

About 180,000 people were eligible to vote in the country of nearly 900,000 residents.

Some analysts warned of eventual post-election violence similar to that following a parliamentary election in 2013, when the opposition alleged rigging and the government cracked down on demonstrators.

Observers attribute Guelleh's strong hold on power largely to divisions within the opposition and to government repression of dissent.

Rights activists have accused the government of arbitrary arrests and torture, but experts say foreign criticism is unlikely.

"Djibouti's status as a coveted strategic prize, and its growing ties with China, means that the US and other Western countries are likely to be muted in their criticism of any electoral irregularities," Payton said.

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