Togo vote sees low turnout as president seeks third term

Marc Bastian and Emile Kouton
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The Independent National Electoral Commission said Togo's incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe (pictured) had won 62 percent of the vote, far ahead of his nearest rival, with 12 percent of ballots counted

The Independent National Electoral Commission said Togo's incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe (pictured) had won 62 percent of the vote, far ahead of his nearest rival, with 12 percent of ballots counted (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

Lome (AFP) - Togo's presidential election on Saturday saw low turnout, likely boosting President Faure Gnassingbe chances of winning a third term and extending his family's grip on power into a second half-century.

The opposition's prospects of unseating the president were considered poor heading into the vote in the tiny west African nation of roughly seven million people.

Experts said the narrow chance of a stunning upset relied on a massive turnout among the 3.5 million registered voters, but, according to a leading civil society group, many stayed home on polling day.

Paul Amegakpo, who heads the CNSC coalition, which deployed 1,200 observers across the country, described turnout as "very weak."

Voting ended at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT) and counting began immediately at several polling stations in the capital Lome, AFP journalists said.

Gnassingbe said partial returns could be expected from Saturday night.

After casting his ballot in Lome, the incumbent president called on people to "vote in peace", as election violence remains 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.

Eyadema first came to power in 1967.

Gnassingbe's only credible challenger is Jean-Pierre Fabre of the five-party coalition called Combat for Political Change (CAP 2015).

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.

Most analysts agreed that divisions within the opposition camp combined with Gnassingbe's huge benefits of incumbency made Fabre's prospects of victory very dim and created a sense of resignation among his supporters.

- 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.

"There is no work!" proclaimed Martin Assouvi, a solidly built 55-year-old resident of Lome's Pa de Souza neighbourhood. "We are suffering," added the Fabre supporter.

- 'No faith' in opposition -

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.

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.

The current chairman of the west Africa bloc ECOWAS, Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama, said this week that "the entire international community is watching" and called on all candidates to accept the result.

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

Currently there are no limits to the number of times a president can stand for re-election. The opposition has called for a two-term limit.