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Togolese Vote in Landmark Election

Voters in Togo started lining up at dawn Sunday to participate in a landmark election that presents the first major challenge to the ruling party. Observers say this year's vote promises to be the country's first transparent election. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar, with additional reporting from Modeste Messavussu in Lome.

The head of the EU election observation team, Fiona Hall, says voting has been taking place without major problems. Hall adds voters in the capital were patient even when they had to wait for dwindling or late-arriving supplies.

For the first time, poll workers in Togo verified each ballot cast with an official stamp, to help prevent fraud.

"Some very long queues here because the members of the polling stations are waiting for some extra stickers to arrive," said Hall. "They have a certain shortage of stickers at the moment, and so there is a little delay in the process."

Despite long lines, voters in Lome say Sunday's poll was better than previous ones.

Ever since Togo introduced multi-party elections in 1993, voting has been marred by violence and accusations of fraud.

"It has never happened before. So, seeing this kind of thing, and very peaceful. Nobody fight each other, no fighting, nothing, nothing. I am very happy," said a voter. "There have been a lot of changes, it is very good. I wish the president to continue what he is doing."

The 2005 election that officially installed President Faure Gnassingbe ended in deadly security crackdowns against the opposition that sent tens of thousands fleeing.

Last year, Mr. Gnassingbe signed a reconciliation agreement with the opposition, and assigned two opposition leaders to ministerial positions.

Sunday's poll is the first real test for the ruling party, which has held power for almost four decades without being challenged by all the major opposition parties in an election.

President Gnassingbe has said he believes in the fairness of Sunday's vote and will respect the results.

This was the first campaign in 17 years for long-time exiled leader Gilchrist Olympio of Union of Forces for Change, or UFC. He fell ill before Sunday's poll opened and was flown to neighboring Ghana.

But UFC supporters still lined up to vote.

"You do not know. I am very very glad. After 17 years, we are [excited]. We want that this problem will be resolved and business can move," said the voter.

If declared transparent, Sunday's election may unlock millions in much-needed donor dollars. The European Union froze aid in 1993 because of, among other problems, Togo's poor human rights record.

More than two-thousand candidates from 32 parties are competing for 81 positions. The National Electoral Commission has said results will be available within days.

The European Union provided almost $20 million to conduct Sunday's election. With close to three million registered voters, Togo's election costs about $6 per vote.

In a 2006 U.N. study of election costs for countries transitioning to democratic rule, this falls within the average of $4 to $8 per vote.