Togo votes in twice-delayed legislative election

LOME, Togo (AP) — Togo has begun voting in twice-delayed legislative elections that are a test of whether mounting discontent with the West African nation’s long-ruling family dynasty will translate into electoral gains for the opposition.

Eyadema Gnassingbe came to power through a coup and ruled Togo from 1967 until his death in 2005, when his son Faure Gnassingbe took over following an election criticized as flawed and violent. Faure Gnassingbe has ruled ever since, but frustration with the government has spurred recent massive protests, even in the family’s northern strongholds.

At a polling station in Lome’s Djidjole neighborhood, voting began shortly after the scheduled 7 a.m. start time. Some ballot papers and other materials had not arrived, however, meaning voting in some lines was delayed for over an hour.

“We have not opened the poll because some of the items we need to start voting are missing,” said poll worker Kokou Agbodjete. “We are trying to call the electoral commission but we have not reached them yet. The line is always busy. We are trying to explain to the voters, but not all of them understand.”

Delays were noted throughout the country, said Jean-Pierre Fabre, leader of the opposition National Alliance for Change.

“Since this morning we’ve been told of a lot of failures across the country and this is a concern,” Fabre said after voting at a primary school in Lome.

Located on Togo’s coast in the south, much of Lome is sympathetic to the opposition, and some voters said they had lined up two hours early to vote for one of the main opposition coalitions.

“I came here early at 5 a.m., that’s why I’m at the head of the line. I want to be the first to vote for change,” said Dzifa Adzogble, 36. “I hope the true result will be announced. If there is no violence and fraud, then I’m sure we will have a good result.”

More than 60 percent of Togo’s population of 6 million is under 25, according to the African Development Bank, meaning they have lived their entire lives under the Gnassingbe family. Development has lagged during that time. Although the ruling party has campaigned on promises of better education and more jobs, the literacy rate remains stubbornly low at 57 percent, according to this year’s United Nations Human Development Report. The African Development Bank has voiced concern about youth unemployment and underemployment, which it says together affect nearly 30 percent of Togo’s young workers.

In this year’s U.N. Development Program survey of “life satisfaction” in 159 countries worldwide, Togo placed dead last.

Togo’s citizens are increasingly acting on their frustrations. Large-scale protests over a change to the electoral law last year forced the government to delay the legislative election, originally scheduled for last October. The following month, female activists announced a weeklong sex strike to call for the president’s resignation.

This year, tension was exacerbated by mysterious fires in January at major markets in Lome and the northern city of Kara. The opposition has accused the government of using the fires as a pretext to arrest its activists, some of whom remain behind bars.

The elections were rescheduled for March before finally being pushed back to this month, though negotiations over how they would be conducted were not finished until after the campaign began.

Despite frustration with the ruling party, the various opposition coalitions have failed to unite and have not presented a coherent message to voters, said Comi Toulabor, a French-Togolese expert on West African politics at France’s National Foundation of Political Science.

He added that even if voters supported opposition candidates in a majority of the legislature’s 91 seats, there was no guarantee that result would be respected. International observers said the 2007 legislative and 2010 presidential elections were improvements over 2005, but opposition leaders still accused the ruling party of vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing.

“Elections are always moments of uncertainty, and the government doesn’t like uncertainty,” Toulabor said. “So they have put in place a system that they control, so they can minimize the possibility of surprise. They won’t accept a result where they don’t win.”

But George Aidam, vice president in the ruling Union for the Republic, dismissed suggestions the party would lose its majority, saying the party would have the best turnout.

The military, dominated by members of Gnassingbe’s Kabye ethnic group, voted on Monday so they could provide security for Thursday’s general vote, said Jean-Claude Homawoo, vice chairman of the electoral commission.

Gnassingbe’s party won 50 of the legislature’s 81 seats in 2007. The electoral commission says nearly 1,200 candidates are vying for 91 seats this time around, and more than 3 million voters are eligible.

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AP writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.

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