LOME, Togo – Togo's opposition leader Friday claimed an early victory in the presidential race based on preliminary results and accused the ruling party of trying to rig the elections.
Jean-Pierre Fabre, a 57-year-old deputy in Togo's parliament and the candidate of the largest opposition party, said early results tabulated by the opposition indicate his party has a "comfortable lead." In the districts already counted, he said his party had clinched 75 to 80 percent of the vote, and predicted an overall victory of at least 60 percent.
"We conclude that we have won the presidential election of March 4, 2010," he said, as party loyalists crowded inside the tattered party headquarters in a sandy street littered with trash exploded in applause.
Outside the headquarters, a mob chanted: "Change or Death!"
The election commission had called on citizens to exercise patience as the country's votes were tabulated.
Togo has never had a vote considered free and fair since winning independence from France in 1960. For most of the past five decades, the nation of 6 million has been in the hands of the Gnassingbe family.
Opposition supporters vowed they would take to the streets in massive protests if the ruling party tried to rig the results as they were accused of doing five years ago.
"Togo will burn," said 57-year-old Charlotte Lelatou, an opposition supporter. "We are tired and we want a change."
The presidential race is between six opposition candidates and President Faure Gnassingbe, the son of the country's former dictator. The military seized control of the country and imposed the 43-year-old as president immediately after the death of his father on Feb. 5, 2005. Gnassingbe went on to run in 2005 elections that were widely viewed as fraudulent and where the military systematically stole ballot boxes from polling stations.
In a statement read on state TV, the Independent Electoral Commission asked candidates and citizens "to exercise patience and serenity while the commission makes every effort to centralize the results from various polling stations." It said the commission will release provisional results by Saturday.
The election commission did not begin the vote counting until Thursday night, more than six hours after polling stations had closed. Political parties argued over how the votes should be transmitted.
The opposition — backed by international observers from the European Union and a regional bloc of West African states — want the results of each individual polling station sent to the central election commission by VSAT, a system using satellite transmission.
According to two foreign observers, the president of the electoral commission, who is an appointee of Gnassingbe, wanted the results sent by text message or by fax. Both methods can be tampered with. The observers spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
The parties reached an agreement near midnight calling for the results to be sent in by all three methods, and agreeing that a result could only be counted if two of the three were the same, according to an international observer.
But by late Friday, Fabre's spokesman Eric Dupuy said the electoral commission had "turned off" the VSAT system and accused the ruling party of rigging votes. Fabre told reporters that in the district of Kozah, 900 people voted when only 500 were on the voter list. He said that at other polling stations, the number of votes cast is roughly double the number of registered voters. And he charged that the results currently being received by the central electoral commission are "fantastical."
At least 400 people were killed in postelection violence during the last election. Many of the dead were opposition supporters who were systematically hunted down by pro-Gnassingbe militias.
"You see this? It's getting hot out there," said Robert Olympio, a cadre of Fabre's Union for the Forces of Change party. "There's going to be a fight," he said.
Associated Press Writer Ebow Godwin contributed to this report.