Violence-free poll in Togo to elect new president

Voters in the small west African country of Togo went to the polls yesterday to pick a new president in a poll seen as a test of democratic progress in a nation notorious for electoral violence.

More than three million voters are expected to choose a new leader among seven candidates including incumbent Faure Gnassingbe, son of the late veteran dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema.

Polling opened peacefully at most polling stations in the seaside capital, Lome.

“Everything is going on well,” African Union observer Salif Kamaloh Turabi said.

Some 3.2 million natives of Togo, around half of 6.5 million people, were eligible to vote at 5 930 polling stations that opened for 10 hours.

Gnassingbe, 43, a former Mines minister and financial adviser under his father, is seeking a second-term mandate but the opposition dismisses him as a candidate of “a system” that thwarted development in the past 43 years.

His father ruled Togo unchallenged for 38 years before he took over.

He has the backing of the ruling Togolese People’s Rally, which is just as old as he is.

One of his toughest challengers is Jean-Pierre Fabre, 58, an economist from Union of Forces of Change (UFC), the main party of the divided opposition.

UFC is the party of Togo’s first post-independent leader Sylvanus Olympio, killed in a coup masterminded by Eyadema in the 1960s.

Campaigning for the poll ended peacefully on Tuesday – peacefully in contrast with the blood-letting violence of 2005. But voters appeared fearful yesterday, with many reluctant to give their names when speaking to reporters.

“A big change is what is needed … especially on the social front. Until now, only the small clique in power is comfortable and cares only about itself,” said a 38-year-old hotel waiter who only gave his first name, Yawo.

Garba, a young woman hawking fufu, a staple yam porridge, and waiting to cast her vote for Gnassingbe at the same polling station said: “He is young, he works.”

“This year he launched a scheme to hire public workers; youths got jobs. I want peace, peace across Togo,” said Garba.

Togo is the world’s fourth-largest producer of phosphate, but its people are poor and live mainly on subsistence agriculture.

Gnassingbe cast his ballot at a military camp in the Tokoin district of Lome, exclaiming: “May the best man win.”

Voting is by thumb-printing against a candidate of choice.

Some 320 international observers were watching the voting, as well as 146 military observers deployed by the Economic Community of West African States.

The former German-French colony has a history of violence beginning with Eyadema’s coup in 1967. A culture of repression and military power built up over decades under the late president lay at the core of violence that erupted after his death.

Togo’s first democratic election in 15 years led to the resumption of aid by major donors, including the European Union, which cut off aid in 1993.

Gnassingbe vowed this poll would be violence-free and raise Togo to new heights of “a state of law”. The campaign was peaceful with rival supporters crossing paths in Lome in a carnival-like atmosphere.


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