(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Voters to go to polls on 24 April to elect new president

[Togo] Faure Gnassingbe has caused uproar at home and abroad after seizing power following his father's death.

The Togolese authorities have fixed 24 April as the date for presidential elections designed to end weeks of political turmoil following the death of veteran president Gnassingbe Eyadema.

The date was announced by Interior Minister Akila-Esso Boko and the newly sworn-in head of the National Electoral Commission, Kissem Tchangai-Walla, on Thursday night after the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) said it would be impractical to try and organise the poll any earlier.

The main opposition party, the Union of Forces for Change (UFC), said it would work with the election date set, but expressed doubt that free and fair elections could be organised in such a short time.

"It's surreal. I don't think it's possible to organise a vote which is transparent and honest in this timeframe," Jean-Pierre Fabre, the UFC secretary-general, told reporters. "We are ready to participate in the election but we are not suicidal. We will remain vigilant."

The opposition says the country's electoral register needs a complete overhaul, with some leaders estimating that almost a quarter of the names on it are fictitious.

Togo, a tiny West African nation, was thrust into the international spotlight on 5 February when Eyadema's son, Faure Gnassingbe, seized power with the backing of the army following his father's sudden death after 38 years in power.

Gnassingbe amended the constitution to allow him to rule until 2008 without calling fresh elections. But last week he stepped down following intense pressure from ECOWAS and the African Union (AU), both of which described his seizure of power as a military coup d'etat.

Gnassingbe handed over the reins of power to the vice-president of the national assembly Abass Bonfoh, who will be interim head of state until next month's election.

However, Gnassingbe, who served as a minister in his father's government, has made clear that he plans to return to the presidency soon. Shortly before the burly 39-year-old stepped down as interim leader, he was crowned as the presidential candidate of the ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) party.

Interior Minister Boko said all presidential candidates would have to submit their nomination papers by 26 March.

The electoral lists would be revised between 28 March and 5 April and campaigning for the election would begin on 8 April, he added.

Go it alone or unite?

A coalition of six opposition parties is mulling whether to present a united front and choose a sole candidate to run against the dead president's son.

They expect to reach a decision by Saturday, according to Leopold Gnininvi, the leader of the Democratic Convention of the African People (CDPA) opposition party.

The Panafrican Patriotic Convergence Party (CPP), led by former prime minister Edem Kodjo, urged all opposition parties to pool their efforts under the banner of one candidate.

"Despite its numerous and equally charismatic leaders, the opposition family should assume its responsibilities and name a single candidate to wear its colours during this exceptional stage of our history," the CPP said in a statement after the election date was announced.

Gilchrist Olympio, the exiled leader of the UFC who was barred from running against Eyadema in the 2003 presidential elections, has already announced his intention to run.

But a constitutional amendment introduced by Eyadema in 2002 requires all presidential candidates to have lived in Togo for at least 12 months prior to the election. Olympio, the son of Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio, has lived in Paris for several years.

The UFC has traditionally been considered the strongest opposition party in Togo, but some leaders of rival parties expressed shock that Olympio had announced plans to stand for the presidency before proper consultations on choosing a single opposition candidate had taken place.

Another spontaneous opposition candidate is Kofi Yamgnane, a Togolese with dual French nationality who has lived in France for over 40 years. Yamgnane, 59 has made a political career in France, where he served as a junior minister in government from 1991 to 1992.

Describing himself as "the black Celt," he is currently a senior figure in local government in Brittany.

"I have decided to stand in the presidential election," the 59-year-old told the French newspaper, Le Monde, on Thursday. "I will be meeting with opponents of the Eyadema regime in Paris."

However, Yamgnane may find himself up against the same 12-month residency requirement as Olympio.

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