LOME, Togo (AP) — The West African nation of Togo held a presidential election Saturday that was expected to result in the incumbent winning a fourth term despite years of calls by the political opposition for new leadership.
President Faure Gnassingbe became president in 2005 following the death of his father, who seized power in 1967. Under the country's current law, Gnassingbe could remain in office until 2030, if he keeps getting re-elected.
The president's party predicted an all but certain victory for him Saturday.
“Given the level of mobilization, we are convinced and certain that this enthusiasm will also be reflected in the polls,” ruling party spokesman Gilbert Bawara said.
But months of anti-government protests in 2017, with about 20 people killed, were a sign of impatience with the family's hold on power.
Opposition candidates alleged there was organized fraud in the elections, saying that several opposition delegates were prevented from voting. There were also accusations that people voted with old cards.
Provisional election results were expected in the coming days. The Independent National Electoral Commission has six days to announce the provisional results.
While the day remained calm, shortly after vote counting began Saturday evening, the home of opposition candidate Agbeyome Kodjo and two of his major supporters were surrounded by members of the military. The minister of security, Gen. Damehame Yark, said the move was made to ensure their security.
Internet access was also restricted.
The election was observed by 26 international observation missions and more than 30 Togolese civic groups.
However, Togo's government this week expelled an organization based in the United States that promotes democratic standards and observes elections. The U.S. government criticized the exclusion of the National Democratic Institute.
“We are deeply troubled by the Togolese government’s actions to restrict nonpartisan election monitoring,” National Democratic Institute President Derek Mitchell said. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to support the Togolese people’s desire for democracy and ability to monitor their elections in accordance with internationally recognized principles of transparency.”
The head of Togo's electoral commission, Tchambakou Ayassor, told journalists Friday that the government had justification to “withdraw the accreditation of one organization.”
"We clearly indicated in a statement to this organization that there were reasons to believe this organization was preparing to disrupt the electoral process,” Ayassor said.
In addition, the electronic vote-counting system will not be used because “while deploying these devices it came to our attention that there was a heightened risk of the systems being hacked, which we suspect had the aim of manipulating the results,” Ayassor said.
Gnassingbe enacted a law last year that limits presidents to two 5-year terms. However, the law was not retroactive so his previous three terms are not counted in the limit on his tenure.
He called on voters to renew confidence in him to guarantee peace and security in Togo amid a growing extremism threat in the West African region. He also promised to improve the health, education and agricultural sectors.
There were six other presidential candidates, including Jean-Pierre Fabre, 67, with the National Alliance for Change, who came in second in the 2010 and 2015 elections. Fabre contested the 2015 election result that gave Gnassingbe about 56% of the vote.
"I had the victory stolen from me the previous times. It will not happen again,” Fabre said while campaigning. “Go out massively on Feb. 22 to sanction this regime and choose those who are really capable of managing the country.”
Opposition groups chose not to support any one candidate in hopes of the election going to a second round.
Some observers worried that Saturday's first-round vote would not be transparent and fair.
“Let's be realistic! None of the candidates can win this presidential election in the first round if the election is truly transparent. But it is up to opponents to work to minimize fraud, "said Spero Mahoule, a member of the Collective of Associations Against Impunity in Togo.
More than 3.6 million people are registered to vote in Togo, which has a population of nearly 8 million.
The election was held against the backdrop of rising prices for basic necessities, weak health systems and an education system in which teachers continually threaten strikes. Unemployment among young people is increasing.
Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.