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Niger goes to polls amid opposition boycott

Voting on Tuesday got under way in parliamentary elections in Niger despite an opposition boycott and calls from regional and international bodies for a postponement.

Niger’s opposition is boycotting the vote in protest at the extension of President Mamadou Tandja’s mandate, which would have run out in December, through an earlier referendum that it condemned as a “coup d’etat”.

The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the European Union, a major donor, have all urged a delay in order to revive political dialogue between Tandja and the opposition.

Tandja cast his vote early on Tuesday at Niamey city hall flanked by heavy security.

“I wish that this day will be good for Niger, that the voting will pass off smoothly and that the elected deputies will be true patriots,” he said, adding that he hoped the voting would be “fair and transparent”.

The polls, to fill 113 parliamentary seats, come after Tandja dissolved Parliament in June, two months before he held the referendum to prolong his mandate. Around six million people are eligible to vote.

In power for 10 years, Tandja on August 4 pressed ahead with a referendum to change the Constitution, prolonging his mandate by three years and then opening the way to further elections in which he can stand.

The referendum was widely opposed within Niger and was universally condemned by the international community.

Ecowas banned Niamey from convening meetings of the 15-nation body and from putting up candidates for posts within international organisations.

Tandja has argued that he needs more time to complete work undertaken during his two five-year terms in office, where he has sought peace with Tuareg rebels in the desert north of the country and has signed agreements, mainly with France, for the further exploitation of Niger’s only resource, uranium.

Ecowas on Saturday urged the president indefinitely to postpone the vote to promote dialogue with his opponents. Then on Sunday, an Ecowas delegation led by Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf met Tandja in Niamey for a last-ditch attempt to have him call off the election.

On Monday, the EU’s Swiss presidency also demanded a deferment of the elections which “in the current circumstances, will harm Niger’s development and could damage the peace, stability and security of the region”.

Brussels also warned of the “negative impact on relations between Niger and the European Union,” if the elections went ahead.

In July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the country’s democracy and institutions were “directly threatened”. French nuclear power company Areva operates a number of uranium mines in Niger, the world’s fourth largest uranium producer.

Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, derives the bulk of its foreign trade income from uranium. — AFP

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