Togo holds key parliament ballot after divisive reformMon, 29 Apr 2024 08:34:47 GMT

Togolese began voting in legislative elections on Monday after a divisive constitutional reform that opponents say allows President Faure Gnassingbe to extend his family’s decades-long grip on power.The ballot comes after lawmakers this month approved the reform creating a new prime minister-style post opponents believe is tailored for Gnassingbe to avoid presidential term limits and stay in office.In power for nearly 20 years, Gnassingbe succeeded his father Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled for almost four decades himself following a coup in the small coastal West African state wedged between Benin and Ghana.”This is the first time I am voting, because I lived in a neighbouring country before. I came out early to avoid crowds,” said Koffi Ohini, a farm technician, 24, who cast his ballot in the capital Lome. “I want to vote because these elections are important.”Early turnout at polling stations in the capital was scattered but the streets were calm.Monday’s vote will elect 113 lawmakers and also for the first time 179 regional deputies from the country’s five districts who along with municipal councillors will elect a newly created Senate.For Gnassingbe’s ruling UNIR party this makes Togo more representative, but opposition parties have mobilised supporters to vote against what they say is an “institutional coup”. Gnassingbe, 57, has already won four elections, all contested by the opposition as flawed. He would have only been able to run one more time as president in 2025 under the previous constitution.With a population of nearly nine million, Togo’s economy is mainly agrarian, though Lome has one of the busiest deep sea ports in West Africa, helping the country weather the fallout of the Ukraine war and the pandemic.The government has focussed on developing infrastructure and expanding access to electricity, but poverty levels are still around 40 percent, according to the World Bank.  Like its Gulf of Guinea neighbours, Togo also faces a growing risk of spillover from jihadist conflicts to its north in the Sahel. Officials reported 30 deaths from “terrorist” incidents in the country’s north last year. – New post, new power -According to the new constitution adopted by lawmakers on April 19, Togo’s president becomes a mostly ceremonial role elected by parliament, and not the people, for a four-year term.Togo’s shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system means power now resides with the new president of the council of ministers, a sort of super-Prime Minister, who automatically will be the leader of the majority party in the new assembly.Gnassingbe’s Union for the Republic, or UNIR party, already dominates parliament. If the ruling party wins on Monday, Gnassingbe can assume that new post.Results from the ballot are expected to be released within six days.Regional West African body ECOWAS said it would send a team of observers to Togo for the vote. The run up to the election has seen a tightening of controls.Opposition attempts to organise protests against the reforms were blocked by authorities.Togo’s Electoral Commission refused to allow the Togolese Bishops’ Conference to deploy election observers across the country, according to a document seen by AFP.Togo’s High Authority for Audiovisual and Communication (HAAC) also temporarily suspended all accreditation for the foreign press to cover the elections.