Over 3 million to vote in Togo presidential election

LOME: More than three million people are expected to vote Thursday in Togo to pick a new president, with candidates including incumbent Faure Gnassingbe, in the small west African nation notorious for electoral violence.

This time around, the Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), charged for the first time with organising presidential polls in Togo, vowed on Wednesday that it will stage a free and fair poll, devoid of violence.

"We commit ourselves to organising a just, fair and transparent election devoid of violance, to ensure that Togo, our country, finds its place in the comity of modern democracies," CENI president Issifou Taffa Tabiou told a news conference in Lome.

Six opposition candidates are challenging Gnassingbe, 43, who came to power in 2005 after the death of his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, whose dictatorial rule lasted 38 years.

One of his toughest challengers is Jean-Pierre Fabre, 58, an economist.

Voting begins at 7:00 am (0700 GMT) and closes at 5:00 pm (1700 GMT).

Campaigns for the poll in the country of 6.5 million people ended Tuesday midnight peacefully in contrast with the blood-letting violence that happened in 2005.

The violence that followed the disputed vote left up to 800 dead according to various sources, but the United Nations put the toll at 400 to 500 deaths.

In this crucial vote, seen as a test of democratic progress in a nation notorious for electoral violence, it is widely said in Lome that "the palm tree will attempt to uproot the maize."

The maize is the emblem of the Togolese People's Rally (RPT), in power for four decades, whose flagbearer is 43-year-old Gnassingbe.

The palm tree is the symbol of the Union of Forces of Change (UFC), the main party of the divided opposition, represented by Fabre.

The image of the late Eyadema, absolute grandmaster in Togo from 1967 to 2005, still looms large in Lome, five years after his demise.

Faure, a former mines minister and financial adviser under his father, is seeking a second-term mandate but the opposition dismisses him as a candidate of "a system" that checkmated development in the past 43 years.

At the stadium late Tuesday in Lome, bastion of opposition, where 15,000 people gathered, they recalled the "old man's" authoritarian regime, marked by assassinations and violent repression of protests and 38 years of ruling of a country as if it were "private property" which produced "a clan of the rich."

Gnassingbe has vowed that this poll will raise Togo to new heights, on the basis of "a state of law."

During this year's campaigns, which were peaceful, supporters of different parties crossed paths in Lome in a carnival-like ambiance.

For Thursday's poll, 40 international observers were deployed by the African Union, 130 by the European Union and 150 civilians and 146 soldiers by the Economic Community of West African States. Togo is a founding member of the 15-nation regional bloc.

Speaking late Tuesday at the Lome stadium, officials of the UFC expressed fear over possible electoral fraud.

"If they offer you money (to vote), take it, eat there but vote here," UFC vice president Patrick Lawson screamed during the rally.

In the opposition stronghold Lome with 1.5 million residents, Fabre is hopeful of clinching "92 percent of ballots."

"Fifty years after independence, there is no potable water in certain parts of the capital," he said, and accused the outgoing regime of "squandering and diversion of public resources."

In Kara, 420 kilometres (260 miles) north of Lome, the stronghold of his father, Gnassingbe, in a solemn appeal to the people of Togo, said: "There will be just one winner" and "we should be prepared to respect people's choice, not engaging in violent acts and useless demands."