Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe is seeking to extend dynastic rule started by his father Eyadema in 1967, by seeking a fourth term in the country’s election on Saturday.
Because the opposition is weakened by division, Gnassingbe is seen by political analysts as a shoo-in to win, despite widespread demonstrations against his rule in 2005 and 2017 in which hundreds died during clashes with police.
In response to political pressure, Gnassingbe enacted a law last year limiting presidents to two five-year terms. However, it is not backdated to account for the three terms he has already served, so he could stay in power until 2030.
His father seized power in a 1967 coup.
Togo is the 10th poorest country in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, and the country received 330 million euros in European Union aid between 2014 and 2020. The EU froze aid from 1993 to 2007, citing the country’s poor democratic record.
Gnassingbe has long promised to boost economic development and the country has seen annual economy growth of around 5% in recent years, driven by investment in energy and transport.
The capital Lome is home to pan-African Ecobank and major regional airline Asky, and the country has so far been spared the kind of jihadist violence that has hit neighboring Burkina Faso not far from Togo’s border.
But grinding poverty and labour strikes are reminders of the challenges ahead.
When Gnassingbe came to power in 2005 after his father’s death, mass protests erupted that were met with a violent police crackdown and at least 500 were killed.
Despite several attempts, the opposition has not formed a united front, and some experts believe Gnassingbe could win in the first round, without having to go to a run-off vote next month.
“Thanks to God, I think the victory is assured,” he told supporters last week in the northern opposition stronghold of Sokode as a crowd cheered and soldiers looked on.
Some 10,000 security forces will be deployed on voting day, the government has said.
Longtime opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre, a former journalist and human rights campaigner, is running for a third time, after coming second in 2010 and 2015. He has promised to restore democracy and fuel development.
Five other candidates are competing, including former Prime Minister Gabriel Messan Agbeyome Kodjo, who represents a coalition of opposition and civil society groups.
The electoral commission will maintain a centralised counting system, in which results are sent from voting precincts to its headquarters rather than being announced in each constituency. Critics say this makes vote-rigging easier but the authorities have said the election will be free and fair.
The United Nations and regional body ECOWAS have deployed election observers.
Polling stations for the more than 3.5 million registered voters will be open from 0700 GMT and close at 1600 GMT, with provisional results expected six days later.