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Togo's Government, Opposition Locked in Election Standoff - 2002-01-26

Members of the international community and opposition groups in Togo are expressing concern ahead of legislative elections that are scheduled in this West African country in March.

The opposition and the government are deadlocked in their preparation for the elections, which are seen as a test for longtime ruler General Gnassingbe Eyadema's promise to finally relinquish power.

The elections are supposed to provide a chance for Togolese opposition parties to challenge the 35-year mandate of President Eyadema, Africa's longest-serving head of state. The parliament has been controlled by his supporters since 1963 when General Eyadema, then a sergeant, led post-colonial Africa's first military coup.

The Togolese leader has promised that he will step down when his current term expires next year. His supporters in the government, however, have proposed a change in the country's constitution that would allow him to serve another five-year term.

European mediators who met with Eyadema government officials and members of the opposition in Togo in recent days have said both sides remain deadlocked over preparations for the March elections.

The main sticking points include a disagreement over ballots. The opposition says they should be printed in France to minimize the possibility of fraud, while the government insists that they be printed in Togo.

Also, the government has thus far not said it will allow international observers to monitor the polls in March. Another point of contention is the existing parliament's failure to renew the mandate of the country's independent electoral commission, which expired in December. The government has also angered the opposition by refusing to release jailed opposition leader Yawovi Agboyibo, who was convicted last year of making what the government said were defamatory statements against the state.

The European Union has maintained sanctions against Togo for human rights violations following the 1998 presidential elections. European mediators who visited Togo in recent days have warned the sanctions may remain in place if the government does not carry out the March elections in what they call a fair and transparent manner.