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Togo Elections Could be Postponed Again - 2002-02-26

Opposition leaders and government officials in Togo say next month's legislative elections will likely be postponed for a third time. The delay would come as the opposition accuses the government of manipulating election laws to extend the mandate of longtime President Gnassingbe Eyadema - Africa's longest-serving head of state. Tensions have been high in Togo's capital, Lome, in the run-up to the poll, currently scheduled for March 10.

Hundreds of people have taken to the streets of Lome in recent days to protest, after the parliament this month made changes to Togo's electoral code.

The parliament, which is controlled entirely by supporters of President Eyadema, gave the government increased powers to appoint members of the country's National Independent Electoral Commission.

The commission is to oversee parliamentary elections scheduled for March 10. It will be responsible for vote-counting and announcing the election results.

The March elections - twice postponed - are meant to replace a 1999 vote that the opposition boycotted amid allegations of fraud. The current parliament is an interim body made up of representatives appointed by the Eyadema government.

A member of President Eyadema's cabinet, Foreign Minister Koffi Panou, tells VOA elections may have to be postponed again. The official says that with the poll less than two weeks away, the government has yet to print ballots and make other preparations.

Cornelius Aidam is vice president of the opposition Pan-African Patriotic Convergence party. Mr. Aidam, like other members of the Togolese opposition, accuses the government of working to stall the democratic process.

"I think what is behind all these maneuvers is [the government's intent] to put the opposition into a situation where it won't be ready to go to elections," he said. So Mr. Eyadema is just buying time. It will be a massive fraud because, I don't think that in these conditions, the opposition parties will take part."

Parties are demanding that the government release opposition leader Yawovi Agboyibo, who is in prison for making derogatory statements about the Prime Minister - a key ally of President Eyadema.

Tension has been growing in Togo since the government last year began efforts to change the constitution in order to allow President Eyadema to stand for another term in 2003.

In changing the electoral code on February 8, members of parliament passed a measure that requires presidential candidates to reside continuously in Togo during the 12 months preceding the election. Opposition leaders say the move was designed to exclude Gilchrist Olympio, the man considered to be Mr. Eyadema's strongest opponent, from next year's elections. Mr. Olympio has been in exile in Ghana for several years.