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Togolese Opposition Denounces Postponement of Elections - 2002-03-06

Opposition parties in Togo are criticizing the government's decision to postpone legislative elections that were due to take place next Sunday. Opposition leaders accuse the government of long-time ruler Gnassingbe Eyadema of hindering the democratic process.

This is the third time that legislative elections have been postponed. The poll was to replace a 1999 vote that was boycotted by the opposition.

News of the election postponement came as no surprise to people in Togo. Tension has been growing since last year, when the government initiated efforts to change the constitution in order to allow President Gnassingbe Eyadema to stand for another term in 2003.

With 35 years in office, Mr. Eyadema is Africa's longest serving head of state.

The country has been caught in a political impasse that came to a head last month when the interim parliament, controlled by Mr. Eyadema's supporters, changed the electoral laws. The change gave the government added powers to appoint members of the National Electoral Commission. The commission is responsible for counting ballots and calling the election.

Opponents of the government say the changes were meant to help President Eyadema maintain the support of the parliament as he seeks to extend his rule.

In its statement, the government said the postponement of the elections is indefinite. Officials blamed the opposition leaders for the impasse because they have refused to recognize the newly reorganized National Electoral Commission.

Hegbor Gahun is deputy chairman of the opposition Committee for Renewal Action Party. He tells VOA he is disappointed that elections will not be held on March 10. He says he hopes the government will at least use the time to reflect on the way it is organizing the poll.

"What is essential is that conditions of transparency and freedom are put in place before these elections," says Mr. Gahun. "We want to hold these elections as quickly as possible, but the poll must be organized correctly. Everything was done right [on the part of the opposition], and now we do not understand why the powers that be are blocking the elections and saying that we are the cause."

Opposition party officials say they want to engage in a dialogue with the government. They say will not do so, however, until the government releases jailed opposition leader Yawovi Agboyibo. Mr. Agboyibo was imprisoned last year for making negative statements about the prime minister, a close ally of President Eyadema.

Togo has been under international sanctions following allegations of voter fraud in the 1999 elections. Last month, the European Union announced it would withhold aid for the elections until the Togolese government provides evidence that the poll will be carried out in a free and transparent manner.