The West African nation of Togo is gearing up for twice-delayed legislative elections planned for July 25. But while the international community has praised signs of rapprochement between the ruling and opposition parties, it remains to be seen whether everyone will participate.
Beginning last week, representatives from two major opposition coalitions and the ruling party sat down for talks over unresolved issues concerning Togo's legislative vote. The talks were facilitated by Catholic Bishop Nicodeme Barrigah, and United States Ambassador Robert Whitehead was also present.
Major sticking points included the role of the opposition in the country's electoral commission, as well as the continued detention of opposition candidates and supporters accused of involvement in January fires targeting markets in Lome and the northern city of Kara.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Interior Minister Gilbert Bawara announced that three opposition candidates detained over the fires had been released. He said this was just one of the concessions the government had made to ensure a successful vote.
"The government received the request from the Coalition to Save Togo asking for the release of three candidates who were still detained so they could participate fully in the campaign. And the prosecutor has now issued an order announcing their release," said Bawara.
Also Thursday, a joint statement issued by the United States, France, Germany, the United Nations and the European Union hailed progress made during the talks, which ended Tuesday. The statement said there was now "a good base" for credible, peaceful elections.
However, a U.S. Embassy official in Lome told VOA that there were still outstanding issues, including the composition of the electoral commission. The official said it was not clear whether the issues were serious enough to lead some opposition parties to boycott.
As a result of the talks, the election was pushed back four days, to July 25. The opposition parties have yet to issue formal statements saying definitively whether they will participate or not.
"The discussions are still ongoing. That's why we were surprised when the government said this date had been agreed upon," said Jean-Pierre Fabre is the leader of the opposition National Alliance for Change. "It hasn't been agreed upon by consensus. We consider it to be something that the government has imposed."
The legislative elections were originally expected to be held last October. But five months before, the government approved a new electoral code that the opposition said favored the ruling party. The timing of the code violated a rule imposed by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS banning changes to electoral laws less than six months before a vote.
After the opposition threatened to boycott, the vote was rescheduled for March of this year. But that date was never firm, and it was ultimately pushed back to this month.
At Thursday's press conference, Interior Minister Bawara said further delays to the vote would be unacceptable.
"The campaign has already begun, and we already have certain parties, especially independent parties, that have begun campaigning, devoting their resources and means to this effort. These elections have not just been organized for the two main opposition coalitions," he said.
Togo has been ruled by the same family almost continuously since the late 1960s. President Faure Gnassingbe took power after the death of his father, Eyadema Gnassingbe, in 2005.
The mandate for the current legislature ended in October.
Modeste Messavussu contributed to this report from Lome, Togo