By Abdoulaye Massalaki
NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger's opposition parties rejected a newly audited voter register on Monday, saying the process did not meet their demands and casting doubt on presidential and parliamentary elections set for February.
The uranium-producing West African country, one of the world's poorest, has a history of instability and coups. In what had been seen as a victory for parties opposing President Mahamadou Issoufou, the government agreed on Dec. 12 to their demand for an audit, saying it was doing so to ensure transparent and peaceful elections.
But opposition representatives withdrew from the panel selecting a firm to carry out the review, arguing no satisfactory candidate had been found. Issoufou's allies continued the process without them.
Ousseini Salatou, spokesman for the opposition parties, rejected the voter lists immediately after Prime Minister Brigi Rafini announced the completion of the audit on Monday.
"For us, to date there is not a voter register. They can hand this register over to the (elections commission), but we say that no register exists and that there will be no elections," he said.
The audit was carried out by a local firm rather than an international expert, a demand of the opposition that Prime Minister Rafini said was not feasible giving the tight election calendar.
"We have a voter register that is nearly perfect," he said on national radio. "It's a shame that some parties pulled out of the process, but it was quality work."
Tensions are already running high ahead of the Feb. 21 vote.
Since winning election in 2011, a year after his predecessor was ousted in a coup, Issoufou has become an important ally of the West in the fight against regional Islamist militants.
He is heavily favored to win re-election, but critics say he has become increasingly authoritarian and has unleashed a campaign of repression before the polls.
In a televised address last week, Issoufou said authorities had uncovered a plot to topple the government. Nine suspects, including top officers in the military were arrested.
Roddy Barclay, head of intelligence and analysis at London-based consultancy africapractice, said the possibility that the opposition might choose not to participate in the elections would increase the risk of unrest.
"Any boycott risks further marginalizing the opposition which will have to resort to street politics to get its voice heard," he said.
(Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Joe Bavier and Mark Trevelyan)