Niger voters head to polls a year after coup

Voting started Monday in Niger for presidential and parliamentary elections meant to return the country to a civilian government after a military coup last February.

Long lines formed in the capital, Niamey, hours before polling stations opened at 8 a.m. The country's 6.7 million registered voters are choosing between 10 presidential candidates, including the country's first female presidential hopeful, and will vote in 116 legislative races nationwide.

Many supported the February coup that ended the rule of President Mamadou Tandja after he stayed in office months past his legal mandate. But some doubt the vote will fully break a long cycle of coups, countercoups and political maneuvering — or solve the country's many problems.

The country's military ruler, Gen. Salou Djibo, cast his vote early. He said the vote marks "a new start for Niger" and called on the country's voters to go to the polls.

"This new start should allow the authorities, freely elected by the people, to devote themselves to the development of Niger," Djibo said.

Niger has a long tradition of strongmen seizing power by force since independence from France in 1960. The military plays a strong role, and this vote marks the third post-coup transition to civilian rule since 1993.

Former President Tandja, 72, was brought to power in one such handover in 2000 and re-elected in 2004. He sparked resistance at home and abroad in 2009 after pushing through constitutional changes that increased his powers and abolished term limits.

The uniformed men who stormed the presidential palace with a hail of gunfire said they took control of the nation of 15 million in order to restore democratic rule. The soldiers called themselves the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy and promised to fight corruption and turn the nation into "an example of democracy and good governance."

The junta later transferred Tandja from house arrest to prison after charging him with graft during his decade in power.

A new constitution approved by referendum in October — the country's seventh since independence — gives the military until April 6 to pass the reins back to civilian hands.

"I have been here since 6:30 a.m. I want to exercise my civic right because today is a very important day for us Nigeriens," voter Mehaou Mounkaila said.

Local and regional elections held on Jan. 11 were marred by logistical problems, including difficulties delivering voter materials, but electoral officials said they were ready for Monday's poll.

"All the material is in place. We are missing nothing," said M. Hamidou Galadi, the leader of a polling station in the capital.

Mahamadou Danda, the transitional government's prime minister, applauded the peaceful campaigning.

"This is very important and symbolic day for Nigeriens. It is also a great day for our friends outside the country who have supported Niger," Danda said as he emerged from his voting booth.

Observers from the European Union, the African Union and the regional Economic Community of West African States are on the ground for the vote. Polls are scheduled to close at 7 p.m.