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Niger Ruling Party, Opposition Hail Local Election - 2004-07-29

Winners and losers in Niger's local elections are congratulating themselves on the country's first successful ballot. They say the elections, held last Saturday, brought the impoverished West African nation a step closer to democracy. Legislative and presidential elections are to be held later this year.

Final results from Saturday's vote indicate candidates from the ruling National Movement for the Development of Society won nearly 1,400 seats as mayors and local councilors out of a total of more than 3,500 up for grabs.

The opposition Party for Democracy and Socialism came in second with 821 seats. Turnout has been estimated at about 43 percent, but it could have been higher, as thousands of voters in the capital, Niamey, said they hadn't been able to find their voting card at any of the many polling stations.

Up to now, mayors and local councilors, usually sultans and village elders, were directly appointed by the central government. The last local elections, held in 1999, were annulled after a military coup.

Despite the logical difficulties, the vice president of the ruling party, Amadou Salifou, hailed the conduct and results of Saturday's election.

He says, overall, voting took place freely and without incident. He says he believes voters backed the ruling party because of its pledge to bring grassroots democracy to Niger and its commitment to long-term development. Two other parties supporting the ruling party also fared well.

Despite their defeat, opposition leaders were also pleased with the election process.

Campaign director Yacouba Mai Dadji says the Party for Democracy and Socialism proved it was a national organization capable of winning seats anywhere in Niger.

He adds that now the real fight begins.

He says the opposition didn't spend a lot of money on the local elections, preferring to save its resources for the legislative and presidential elections to be held later this year. The opposition says its main campaign issue will be the fight against government corruption.

The local elections are part of a decentralization process that was built into a 1995 peace agreement between the government and Tuareg rebels.

A government official says current plans are for the parliamentary elections to be held in October and the presidential ballot in November, but no specific dates have been set.

President Mamadou Tandja, who was elected in 1999, has not said whether he will run again, but is widely expected to seek a second term.

Niger, a mostly desert country of more than 11 million people, is one of Africa's poorest. Its economy, based on subsistence agriculture, is often threatened by droughts.