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Togo votes for a new president


Faure Gnassingbe

Faure Gnassingbe

Togo went to the polls in presidential elections on Saturday, with the incumbent Faure Gnassingbe seeking a third term in office to extend his family’s grip on power into a second half-century.

Gnassingbe, 48, called on people in the small west African nation to “vote in peace” after casting his ballot in the capital Lome, as fears of election violence remained fresh in the nation’s memory.

Some 500 people were killed and thousands more injured in the disputed 2005 vote, according to the UN. Around 9,000 security personnel were deployed nationwide on Saturday.

Gnassingbe has been in power since the death his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, in 2005, winning contested elections that year and five years later.

He is heavily favoured against a splintered opposition, with Jean-Pierre Fabre of the five-party coalition called Combat for Political Change (CAP 2015) seen as the only credible challenge to the ruling family dynasty.

Fabre voted in the densely populated Lome neighbourhood of Kodjo Via Kope, where a small crowd of supporters outside the polling station shouted “President! President!”

Dressed in a long white tunic, Fabre told the crowd that he expected irregularities, as in all of Togo’s past elections, but said he believed “the risks of fraud have been reduced” this year.

On the campaign trail, Gnassingbe vaunted his introduction of free primary schools and infrastructure projects such as new roads.

But Fabre has called for regime change after 48 years of unbroken rule by the president and his father before him.

– Frustrated voters –

Few people in Togo, a former French colony of roughly seven million people, have felt the benefit of recent economic growth and according to the government, unemployment is rife at 29 percent.

Years of sanctions imposed by international blocs such as the European Union during Gnassingbe Eyadema’s autocratic regime have hit business and education, the administration maintains.

Ama Yambila, a mother-of-seven who queued up to vote in Lome, told AFP that the devastating lack of jobs had taken its toll and the country would benefit from change.

“I have lived nearly my whole life with this regime. The regime has to go,” said the sexagenarian, who needed crutches to reach the polling centre, where she waited to cast her ballot accompanied by two friends.

Lome is considered an opposition stronghold, but Gnassingbe is expected to win huge majorities in his northern fiefdom, including the village of Kara, where many people queued at a polling station in a primary school.

“I voted for Faure because I don’t have confidence in the opposition,” said Mehya Essowe, a student.

– Powerful incumbent –

Gnassingbe is considered the clear favourite going into the vote given the power of incumbency and the backing of the military, most of whom come from the north.

But Fabre is hoping for a repeat of the recent opposition victory of Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria and the departure of neighbouring Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore last year after a popular uprising.

Gnassingbe won 60.88 percent of the vote against Fabre’s 33.93 percent in 2010. Some analysts believe the result could be closer if the opposition leader is able to mobilise stay-at-home voters.

More than 1,200 election observers, including from the West African bloc ECOWAS, the African Union and Togolese civil society, will be on hand to monitor voting.

The current ECOWAS chairman, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama, said this week that “the entire international community is watching” and called on candidates to accept the result.

Just over 3.5 million people are registered to vote and Gnassingbe said partial results could be expected from Saturday night, with counting set to start after polls close at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT).

Five candidates in all are contesting the election, which is being held in one round.

Currently there are no limits to the presidential mandate. The opposition has called for a two-term limit.

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