Security in Togo was tight Thursday as voters turned out for legislative elections overshadowed by bloody pre-ballot clashes and an opposition boycott.
Police, military police and troops were out in force as polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0700 GMT), although the mood in the capital Lome was calm.
The tumultuous buildup to the elections saw a ban on protests and clashes with security forces that cost six lives, according to an opposition tally.
Togo, a tiny west African country wedged between Ghana and Benin, has endured months of upheaval with demonstrators demanding President Faure Gnassingbe step down.
Gnassingbe has been in power since 2005 after succeeding his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled the country with an iron first for 38 years.
A coalition of 14 opposition parties are refusing to take part in the elections, claiming the organisation is flawed.
They are demanding an overhaul of the electoral commission, greater transparency and constitutional reforms to limit the number of presidential terms.
Voters were calmly waiting in line in the Doumassesse district of the capital Lome which is a stronghold of the ruling Union for the Republic (UNIR) party, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
“I have come out to cast my ballot as a good citizen must,” said one voter, Adje Messo-Hanam. “I am not afraid, as Togo is a peaceful country.”
On Wednesday, General Yark Damehame, Togolese security minister, warned that “necessary arrangments” were in place to thwart those “wishing to prevent the elections.”
The main challenge for UNIR is to secure four-fifths of the parliament’s 91 seats — or 73, up from its current 62.
That would allow the party to pass reforms unchallenged in parliament, including changes to the constitution that would pave the way for Gnassingbe to run for office again in 2020 and 2025.
The polls are being held after months of talks to solve the political crisis led by Ghana and Guinea, mediators for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
ECOWAS pushed for elections before year’s end — a recommendation the opposition dismissed as rushed.