LOME, Togo (AP) — Togo held twice-delayed legislative elections Thursday that will test the strength of mounting discontent with a long-ruling family dynasty in the nation that came last in a U.N. survey of "life satisfaction."
Eyadema Gnassingbe came to power through a coup and ruled Togo from 1967 until his death in 2005, when his son Faure Gnassingbe took over following an election criticized as flawed and violent. Faure Gnassingbe has ruled ever since, but frustration with the government has spurred massive protests, even in the family's northern strongholds.
Large-scale demonstrations against a change to the electoral law last year forced the government to delay the legislative election, originally scheduled for last October. The following month, female activists announced a weeklong sex strike to call for the president's resignation.
This year, tension was exacerbated by mysterious fires in January at major markets in Lome and the northern city of Kara. The opposition has accused the government of using the fires as a pretext to arrest its activists, some of whom remain behind bars. The elections were rescheduled for March before finally being pushed back to this month.
Election day was also plagued by delay: Polling stations were supposed to open at 7 a.m., but voting was delayed at around 30 percent of them because of missing ballot papers and other materials, said Doudou Dia, executive director of the Goree Institute, a Senegal-based NGO conducting an observation mission in Togo.
Opposition candidates were quick to fault the government for mismanaging the vote. "Since this morning we've been told of a lot of failures across the country and this is a concern," said Jean-Pierre Fabre, leader of the opposition National Alliance for Change.
The vote took place in an atmosphere of relative calm, but a brief altercation did occur in Lome when security forces stormed the studio of Legende FM, a radio station sympathetic to the opposition.
"We were in the middle of our broadcast when the police arrived," said Justin Anani, a 35-year-old journalist at the station. "The commander told us to leave, but we refused. Then his security elements grabbed the microphones so we went outside, and already a large crowd was forming."
Hundreds of opposition supporters threw rocks at the police, forcing them to leave. One of the police officers fell off the back of a fleeing vehicle and was beaten by members of the mob before being taken to safety.
More than 60 percent of Togo's population of 6 million is under 25, according to the African Development Bank, meaning they have lived their entire lives under the Gnassingbe family. Development has lagged during that time. In this year's U.N. Development Program survey of "life satisfaction" in 159 countries worldwide, Togo placed dead last.
Despite frustration with the ruling party, the various opposition coalitions have failed to unite and have not presented a coherent message to voters, said Comi Toulabor, a French-Togolese expert on West African politics at France's National Foundation of Political Science.
He added that even if voters supported opposition candidates in a majority of the legislature's 91 seats, there was no guarantee that result would be respected. International observers said the 2007 legislative and 2010 presidential elections were improvements over 2005, but opposition leaders still accused the ruling party of vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing.
The military, dominated by members of Gnassingbe's Kabye ethnic group, voted on Monday so they could provide security for Thursday's general vote, said Jean-Claude Homawoo, vice chairman of the electoral commission.
"Elections are always moments of uncertainty, and the government doesn't like uncertainty," Toulabor said. "So they have put in place a system that they control, so they can minimize the possibility of surprise. They won't accept a result where they don't win."
AP writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.