Polling stations have opened in Togo for a presidential election expected to extend incumbent Faure Gnassingbe’s 15-year hold on power, and his family’s rule of more than half a century.
Some political analysts expect Gnassingbe to win the election, which began on Saturday, outright in the first round. Many in the West African country of about eight million people say they are fed up with the dynasty of Faure Gnassingbe and his father Eyadema Gnassingbe, who seized power in a 1967 coup, and the persistent poverty during their tenures.
Togo election: Main observer group barred from monitoring
Togo changes law to let president stand for two more terms
Transforming a symbol of colonialism into a space for African art
But the family has fended off various challenges to its rule, including protests that were met with deadly crackdowns in 2005 and 2017.
The election follows a constitutional revamp last year that limits presidents to two five-year terms. The reform was not retroactive, however, meaning the president could be in power for another decade.
“Like many Togolese, I voted for change. Here’s to a new president coming to power,” car mechanic Edoh Komi, 47, said after casting his vote in the seaside capital Lome.
More than 3.6 million people are registered to vote in what many hope will be a calm election.
The vote is being held against the backdrop of rising prices for basic necessities, weak health systems and an education sector in which teachers continually threaten strikes. Unemployment among young people is increasing.
Polling stations opened at 07:00 GMT and are due to close at 16:00 GMT, with provisional results expected in six days.
There were long queues outside some stations in Lome, which Gnassingbe has tried to turn into a regional transport and finance hub.
Opposition groups have chosen not to support a single candidate in hopes that voting goes to a second round.
Gnassingbe faces six rivals from a divided and historically weak opposition, including Jean-Pierre Fabre, a former journalist and human rights campaigner who came second in elections in 2010 and 2015. He says he wants to restore democracy in Togo.
Reporting from Lome, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris said the opposition faces a “very tough job” to unseat the president, given how the Gnassingbe dynasty has entrenched itself in the political and socioeconomic life of the West African country.
“We’re talking about a political establishment, a dynasty that’s been in power for more than half a century,” Idris said. “They have the structures on the ground and they are also capitalising on the inability of the opposition to present a common front to challenge the leadership of the ruling class in Togo.”
Analysts say Gnassingbe already weathered the most serious challenge to his political survival during the 2017 demonstrations when he resisted protesters’ calls to make a two-term limit of the presidency retroactive.
His concession in allowing at least some form of term limits was reminiscent of his father. Eyadema Gnassingbe was absolute ruler of the former French colony for 25 years before agreeing in a 1992 constitution to notional multi-party democracy and a limit of two presidential terms.
However, legislators amended the constitution 10 years later to allow him to run again. When he died in 2005, the military installed his son as interim president, ignoring a law that said the head of the national assembly should take over.
If no candidate secures a majority of the vote on Saturday, there will be a runoff vote next month. The opposition candidates say a centralised counting system will help Gnassingbe cheat, a charge his government denies.
But some observers worry that Saturday’s vote will not be transparent and fair.
“Let’s be realistic! None of the candidates can win this presidential election in the first round if the election is truly transparent. But it is up to opponents to work to minimize fraud,” Spero Mahoule, a member of the Collective of Associations Against Impunity in Togo, told the Associated Press news agency.
If elected, Gnassingbe has said he will continue reforms that have helped achieve annual economic growth of about 5 percent in recent years. More than half of the population lives in poverty, according to the African Development Bank.