Lome, Togo - Candidates in Togo's parliamentary elections made their final pitches to voters on Tuesday ahead of polls that will see the West African nation's opposition try to loosen the ruling family's decades-long grip on power.
Thursday's vote comes after months of delays amid protests by a coalition of opposition and civil society groups known as “Let's Save Togo” that seeks electoral reforms.
Authorities have dispersed many of these protests with teargas, but negotiations in recent weeks have led to a deal that saw the opposition drop threats to boycott the poll.
On the final day of campaigning, “Let's Save Togo” held a closing rally at a sports stadium in the capital Lome for roughly 2 000 supporters. Some danced, sang and wore bright orange T-shirts to show support for the coalition.
“We want a real change... A small group of people is hoarding all of the country's wealth,” said Djagba Lare, 57, a port worker and opposition supporter.
President Faure Gnassingbe's Union for the Republic (UNIR) party has put up posters across Lome, with supporters gathering in the Aboue neighbourhood for a final campaign event.
Several thousands of UNIR supporters in blue and black gathered, singing and dancing on the grounds of a school in Aboue, a densely populated district on the northern outskirts of Lome.
“We want a comfortable majority to enable the head of state to continue what he started since 2005,” a government minister overseeing women's advancement, Patricia Dagban-Zonvide, who heads the ruling party's list of candidates in Lome, told AFP.
She cited in particular economic growth and improvements in infrastructure.
A 25-year-old taxi driver, Cameo, described UNIR as the party of “peace and development”, and the one capable of uniting the nation.
Gnassingbe's UNIR party won 50 of the 81 seats in 2007 elections.
Ninety-one seats will be up for grabs this time, with 26 political parties participating.
The main opposition candidates include Jean Pierre Fabre, head of the National Alliance for Change, who finished second to Gnassingbe in a 2010 presidential vote. His party is part of the “Let's Save Togo” coalition.
The party of Gilchrist Olympio, the long-time opposition leader and son of the country's first post-independence president, is also taking part, though he is not himself a candidate.
Olympio, whose father was assassinated in a 1963 coup in which the current president's father took part, agreed to a deal in 2010 to have his faction of the opposition join Gnassingbe's government.
He said the deal was aimed at moving the country forward, but critics accused him of allowing himself to be co-opted by the government.
Togo was ruled with an iron fist by Gnassingbe Eyadema from 1967 until his death in 2005, when the military installed his son, Faure Gnassingbe, as president.
Gnassingbe won elections in 2005 and 2010, but the opposition claimed fraud in both polls.
An opposition politician who was barred from running for president in 2010, Kofi Yamgnane, said there were questions as to whether the vote would be clean.
“Why did we have to wait for nearly a year?” said Yamgnane, currently based in France, accusing the ruling party of planning to “cheat”.
Fabre was given a rousing welcome by the crowd when he arrived at the stadium.
He told journalists that “vigilance” was needed to check possible electoral fraud. “Let voting start and we shall see”, he said.
The African Union and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States have both sent observer missions to monitor the vote.
At the ruling party's final rally, a 22-year-old law student named Yao said he hoped the results would be “accepted by all and that there won't be any violence”. - Sapa-AFP