Voters in Togo are set to cast their ballots on Saturday in a presidential election that is expected to further extend the Gnassingbe family’s decades-long rule.
Polls show incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe is likely to win a fourth-straight term in office as the opposition has not been able to form a united front.
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The 53-year-old leader took office in 2005 after the death of his father, Eyadema Gnassingbe, who led the country for 38 years after seizing power in a coup in 1967.
Among the candidates is a former journalist and human rights campaigner, Jean-Pierre Fabre, who challenged Gnassingbe in the 2010 and 2015 elections, coming in second on both occasions.
Five other candidates are also competing, including former Prime Minister Gabriel Messan Agbeyome Kodjo, who represents a coalition of opposition and civil society groups.
The election comes on the back of a series of major protests that swept through the country of some eight million people in 2017 and 2018 with demonstrators demanding that Gnassingbe step aside. However, demonstrations were choked off by a fierce government crackdown and a split among the opposition, and Gnassingbe’s grip now appears as solid as ever.
The president pushed through constitutional changes in May last year allowing him to stand again this year, and potentially stay in office until 2030.
The constitutional change caps the presidential mandate to two five-year terms, but does not take into account the three terms Gnassingbe has already served.
Between hope and disillusionment
The bulk of the 3.5-million eligible voters will be comprised of mostly young people such as 24-year-old Fynn Egbede.
Egbede, who has known just two presidents in Togo in his lifetime, got his first voter card in 2018.
“I am looking forward to this experience. I have carefully kept my voter card and will go out to vote for my candidate,” Egbede told Al Jazeera.
While opposition candidate Fabre is promising to restore democracy and boost economic development, the ruling party has been campaigning on a pledge to create 500,000 jobs across the country by 2022 to ease the frustration of a large number of unemployed young people.
Togolese have witnessed six presidential elections since the democratic movement of the 1990s – all won by the Gnassingbe family.
“We are tired of hearing the same thing every time,” said Gloria Krobo, a 42-year-old trader based in the capital, Lome. “We are not making progress. We need to change the way we do things but I don’t think retaining the ruling party will change anything.”
Despite economic growth in recent years of about 5 percent, driven by investment in energy and transport, about half the population is affected by food insecurity, while almost 70 percent of rural households live below the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme.
Risk of electoral fraud
Concerns over the fairness of the electoral process are high among opposition members who say little has changed since the 2018 parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by 14 parties that cited irregularities.
Despite the United Nations and regional body ECOWAS’s deployment of election observers, the national election commission stripped the National Consultation of Civil Society of Togo, a main independent observer group, of its accreditation, accusing it of “preparing to carry out interference” in the vote.
The move earlier this week came after authorities previously blocked Catholic Church monitors from observing the election.
Fabre said some of his campaign rallies were blocked by authorities and raised concerns about the transparency of the vote.
But Egbede is still determined to participate.
“I hope the elections will be free and fair so that we can elect a president of our choice. I couldn’t vote during the last parliamentary elections because of violence in my area. I hope this one will be peaceful,” he said.
Polling stations will open at 07:00 GMT and close at 16:00 GMT, with provisional results expected six days later.