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Togo vote could see Gnassingbes extend decades-long rule

Togo vote could see Gnassingbes extend decades-long rule

LOME, Togo (AP) — The West African nation of Togo is voting Saturday in a presidential election that is likely to see the incumbent re-elected for a fourth term despite years of calls by the opposition for new leadership.

President Faure Gnassingbe’s family has been in power for more than five decades, and his ruling party says a win is all but certain.

“Given the level of mobilization, we are convinced and certain that this enthusiasm will also be reflected in the polls,” said Gilbert Bawara, spokesman for the ruling party.

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.

Togo’s government this week expelled a key U.S.-based election observer group, weakening efforts to monitor for any irregularities. The United States has criticized the expulsion.

“We are deeply troubled by the Togolese government’s actions to restrict non-partisan election monitoring,” said the president of the National Democratic Institute, Derek Mitchell. “Despite the government’s actions, 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.”

Tchambakou Ayassor, president of Togo’s electoral commission, countered in remarks to journalists on Friday: “We had to withdraw the accreditation of one organization. And we clearly indicated in a statement to this organization that there were reasons to believe this organization was preparing to disrupt the electoral process.”

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.

In power since 2005 following the death of his father, Eyadema, who seized power in 1967, Gnassingbe now has the right to remain in office if elected until 2030. In May he enacted a law limiting presidents to two five-year terms, but because it is not retroactive, his previous three terms are not counted.

Gnassingbe has 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.

He faces off against six other candidates including Jean-Pierre Fabre, 67, with the National Alliance for Change,, who came in second in elections in 2010 and 2015. Fabre contested Gnassingbe’s 2015 win with about 56% of the votes.

“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 have chosen not to support a single candidate in hopes that voting in the nation of nearly 8 million people goes to a second round.

But some observers worry that Saturday’s vote won’t 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.

Worries are high as well that internet service could be cut.

More than 3.6 million people are registered to vote in what many hope will be a calm election.

The vote is being held against the backdrop of rising prices for basic necessities, weak health systems and an education sector in which teachers continually threaten strikes. Unemployment among young people is increasing.

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Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, and Lekan Oyekanmi in Lome contributed.

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