Long-delayed elections open in Togo

Polls, delayed by months of protests, aiming to provide latest step in west African country’s transition to democracy.

Togo votes
Rallies in support of the ruling party were held across Togo in the run-up to the vote [AFP]

The west African nation of Togo has launched parliamentary elections, which were delayed by months of protests, with the opposition seeking to weaken the ruling family’s decades-long grip on power.

Thursday’s polls, which opened at 0700GMT and close at 1600GMT, mark the latest step in the country’s transition to democracy after Gnassingbe Eyadema’s rule from 1967 to his death in 2005, when the military installed his son Faure Gnassingbe as president. 

Gnassingbe has since won elections in 2005 and 2010 in the country of six million people, but the opposition has denounced both as fraudulent. 

The elections are the first legislative polls since 2007, when Gnassingbe’s party won 50 of 81 seats. Ninety-one seats will be decided this time.

The voting was initially scheduled for October 2012, but was delayed amid a series of protests by a coalition of opposition and civil society groups known as Let’s Save Togo, which has been pushing for sweeping electoral reforms.

Many of the protests were dispersed by security forces firing tear gas, while about 35 people, mostly opposition members, were detained in the run-up to the vote in connection with suspicious fires at two major markets.

Thirteen opposition members held over the fires have since been released, including five candidates in Thursday’s polls.

Despite the protests in recent months, the campaign in the run-up to the vote has been largely peaceful, though the opposition accused pro-government fighters of assaulting the convoy of one of its candidates in Kloto north of the capital on Tuesday.

The government said it was looking into the incident and could not yet comment.

Opposition members had at first threatened a boycott of the election, but they have since agreed to participate after negotiations which allowed its members access to polling places and granted them state financing for campaigning.

Fraud warnings

On the eve of the election, however, opposition members accused the ruling party of planning to carry out fraud and again called for a postponement to address organisational concerns.

Jean Pierre Fabre, the most prominent opposition leader and a candidate in Thursday’s vote, said he believed the population wanted change, but warned against the potential for fraud.

Asked why he did not boycott given his concerns, he said he did not want to leave the parliament without legitimate opposition voices if the ruling party maintains a majority.

“I do not want to let others be face-to-face with those in power,” he told AFP on Wednesday.

Gnassingbe’s party, formerly the RPT but now known as UNIR (Union for the Republic), has called on voters to grant it a comfortable majority to continue work in areas such as infrastructure improvements.

The president should be given room to govern to continue to “improve the quality of life for the Togolese,” said Patricia Dagban-Zonvide, minister of women’s advancement and head of the ruling party’s list of candidates in Lome.

A number of the best known opposition candidates have organised themselves into two separate coalitions, Let’s Save Togo and Rainbow. Fabre’s ANC party is running with Let’s Save Togo.

The party of Gilchrist Olympio, the long-time opposition leader and son of the country’s first post-independence president, is also taking part, though he is not himself a candidate.

Olympio, whose father was assassinated in a 1963 coup in which the current president’s father took part, agreed to a deal in 2010 to have his faction of the opposition join Gnassingbe’s government.

West African bloc ECOWAS will deploy 80 observers for the vote, while the African Union will have 32. Presidential elections in 2005 were marred by deadly violence, while 2007 and 2010 polls were viewed by observers as significant steps forward.

Source: News Agencies