Tension soars in Togo ahead of parliamentary election

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Togo on Thursday votes in legislative elections that are being boycotted by the main opposition after a year of political upheaval which saw demonstrators demanding President Faure Gnassingbe step down.

A coalition of 14 opposition parties has said it will not take part, citing "irregularities" in preparations for the vote and calling for an overhaul of the electoral commission.

It has also called for more transparency and constitutional reforms to limit the number of presidential terms.

Gnassingbe has been in power since 2005 after succeeding his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled the country with an iron first for 38 years.

Ahead of the December 20 parliamentary elections, the opposition called for 10 days of protests to halt the ballot while urging supporters to follow them in a boycott.

Earlier this month, at least four people were killed when opposition supporters clashed with the security forces in the capital Lome and several other cities across the country. The opposition put the figure at six dead.

Such violence is unusual in this tiny west African country.

"We have always said no to these elections, we will do what we can so that they don't take place," coalition co-ordinator Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson said this week.

"The government does what it wants in the country," a source within the Panafrican National Party (PNP) told AFP.

'Don't vote!'

"We could go on like this forever. Don't go to vote, it's a way of no longer supporting the assembly."

Created in 2014, the PNP has been at the forefront of the demonstrations but has no representation within parliament.

Faced with rising tensions, all religious groups in Togo have called for the polls to be postponed but the ruling party will not budge: the legislative elections will take place with Gnassingbe's Union for the Republic (UNIR) expected to win.

The main challenge for UNIR is to secure four-fifths of the parliament's 91 seats - or 73. It currently holds 62.

That would allow it to pass reforms unchallenged in parliament, including changes to the constitution that would pave the way for Gnassingbe to run for office in 2020 and 2025.

Elections instead of reforms

The polls come after months of talks to solve Togo's political crisis led by Ghana and Guinea, mediators for the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

The regional bloc had pushed for elections to be held by the year's end but the recommendation was dismissed by the opposition as rushed.

"ECOWAS made a mistake of not appreciating the socio-political situation in Togo and prescribed elections instead of reforms," said Raphael Kpande-Adzare, spokesman for the FCTD, an umbrella organisation of civil society groups.

"ECOWAS is responsible for the victims in the recent days because of its superficiality and complacency."

Despite the absence of the PNP and the National Alliance for Change (ANC), two opposition heavyweights, some 850 candidates from 12 political parties will take part alongside several independents.

As well as the ruling UNIR, those running include the Patriotic Movement for Democracy and Development (MPDD) of former premier Agbeyome Kodjo, and the Union of Forces for Chance (UFC), led by veteran politician Gilchrist Olympio.

Political renewal

Those opposition parties that are running say they want to take the ruling party head on.

"The major challenge is to have a bigger presence in parliament in order to have real power to meet the huge needs of the population," UFC spokesman Isaac Tchiakpe told AFP.

Togo, he said, had a "compelling need for renewal in its political life, notably by limiting the presidential term."

At least 8 000 soldiers and police have been deployed across the country to ensure the safety of the vote, with Security Minister Yark Damehane warning against any efforts to disrupt the vote through violence.

"When you decide to boycott a poll, you stay at home. You don't go out to smash up ballot boxes or prevent other citizens from casting their vote," he warned on national television.

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