25 July 2013

Togo Goes to the Polls

Photo: Joel Gbagba/IRIN
An opposition rally in the capital, Lome (file photo).

Togo voted on Thursday in parliamentary elections delayed by months of protests, with the opposition seeking to weaken the ruling family's decades-long grip on power.

"I expect nothing from these elections," said the Togolese blogger Fabbi Kouassi. "The electoral commission is controlled by the ruling party. This is not about vying for power under a democracy, this is a fake democracy," she said.

The present leader, Faure Gnassingbe, was installed as president by the military eight years ago on the death of his father Eyadema Gnassingbe, who had ruled the country since 1967.

Critics of the government expect that the ruling party, the Union for the Republic (UNIR), will win the elections. Like many people living in the big cities, Kouassi uses social media to express her frustration with prevailing conditions in the country. In her blog, the journalist criticizes Gnassingbe's regime and reports about corruption and the excessive use of force by the Togolese police.

Fabbi Kouassi received Deutsche Welle's BOBS (Best of Blogs) Reporters Without Borders award in May, giving her recognition for her work for press freedom.

Opposition too divided to be effective

Many Togolese are frustrated, but that isn't boosting support for the opposition parties, said Ralf Wittek. Based in neighboring Burkina Faso, he runs the local branch of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, which has links to Germany's conservative CSU party. The foundation promotes democracy and good governance in Togo. Wittek is a frequent visitor to the country.

Wittek said the political parties are far too divided amongst themselves to operate as an effective opposition at national level. "Even if the regime loses votes, they will still benefit from the opposition parties' disarray," he said. Only the Gnassingbe family had the resources and organization to "get their way" up and down the country.

Among the parties competing in the elections is the Union of Forces for Change (UFC). Three years ago, it joined Gnassingbe's unity government and now champions most of its policies. In protest, a splinter group left the UFC to found a new party, the Alliance for Change (AFC). The AFC is the only opposition party fielding candidates across the whole country. It also has a good reputation among the population.

Opposition leaders had threatened to boycott the vote after the government refused to implement sweeping electoral reforms, but ultimately decided to take part.

No Arab Spring in Togo

The international community complained of ballot rigging during the 2007 and 2010 elections. The European Union - among others - has been calling for constituency boundaries to be redrawn, because the present structure gives votes cast in Gnassingbe's strongholds a disproportionate influence over the final outcome.

Authorities were said to have shut down a radio station that had aired reports of fraud on polling day

One party competing for the first time is New Engagement for Togo (NET). Supporters meet and communicate online, on social media like Facebook. The party's founder and leader Gerry Taama is a well-known blogger and former officer, but he has no chance of making any headway in Togolese politics. That at least is the view of Dirk Kohnert, expert on West Africa at Germany's GIGA institute. "The party has been puffed up by western media and the odd diplomat, because they hope that the Arab Spring and social media will start to have an impact on sub-Saharan Africa, but it is not going to happen in Togo," he said.

Polling had been delayed by waves of protests amid concern about electoral malpractice

Economic woes

The international community hopes that the violence which marred the 2005 poll will not be repeated. The UN estimates that it claimed the lives of between 400 and 500 people. Dirk Kohnert does not expect any disturbances this time. "I think the vast majority of the population are fed up with party political bickering. People in Togo are interested solely in economic growth, in finding a way out of poverty," he said. Togo is one of the poorest countries in the world. The African Development Bank says every third young person is out of work and two thirds of the country's youth - according to the latest UN development report - can neither read nor write. Most of the population live in rural areas and their frustration is growing.

Fighting poverty is on the agenda of the ruling UNIR party, but its efforts are dependent on development aid and on the global economy picking up. 60 percent of Togo's budget comes from foreign aid and loans. Over the next three years, Togo will receive 27 million euros ($36 million) in aid from Germany. Kouassi finds it frustrating that the international community does not bring more pressure to bear on Togo to introduce democratic reforms. But she refuses to give up. "I want to be able to look our children in the eye and say we fought for something worth fighting for," she said.

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