Niger's opposition wins vote in provisional count

Published March 14, 2011

| Associated Press

Veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou won Niger's presidential run-off election, according to final provisional results announced by the electoral commission Monday.

Saturday's poll was meant to return the country to civilian rule more than a year after soldiers ousted the elderly president. Many hope it will usher in a new era of stability for the coup-ridden West African nation. Voters chose between two former prime ministers.

"My election shows the commitment of the Nigerien people to democracy and change," Issoufou told journalists Monday in front of his home in the capital, Niamey.

Issoufou won nearly 58 percent of votes against rival candidate and ally of the ousted president, Seini Oumarou, who won 42 percent, electoral commission president Abdourhame Ghousmane said Monday.

"The second round of the presidential election went calmly, and we noted a satisfactory voter turnout," Ghousmane said, adding that 48 percent of the country's 6.7 million registered voters went to the polls.

Niger has a long tradition of strongmen seizing power by force. Saturday's vote marked the home stretch of the third post-coup transition to civilian rule the country has undertaken since 1993.

Many cheered the February coup that ended the rule of President Mamadou Tandja, who sparked resistance at home and abroad in 2009 after pushing through constitutional changes that increased his powers and abolished term limits. The ex-president is currently in prison charged with graft during his decade in power.

Jailed for his opposition to Tandja in 2009, Issoufou ran on a platform of change. He was the favorite going into the run-off election, having led the first round of voting in January and having secured the backing of four opposition candidates.

However, analysts say Issoufou's victory may not bring as much change as some would like.

"His allies are more often than not people who governed during the last regime," said Souley Adji, political science professor at the University of Niamey. "We hope the president will be able to emancipate himself from his principal ally, Hama Amadou, to put in place an independent political and economic program and break with the political forces of the past."

A new constitution approved by referendum in October gives the military until April 6 to hand the country back over to civilians and return to its barracks.

"Niger is returning to democracy. If we succeed in this election, we will have achieved a democracy that will give an example to Africa, the world and in particular to Nigeriens," said junta chief and acting head of state, General Salou Djibo.

The military plays a strong role, however, and it remains to be seen whether the vote will fully break the long cycle of coups, countercoups and political crises that have destabilized the country for the past 50 years.

"The principal question right now is controlling the army," Adji said. "Is the military going to unite behind the new president? Is he going to be able to reinstate or remove certain officers? If that is not the case, he could be a president under the control of the army."

Niger is home to some of the poorest people on earth, with a life expectancy of just 52 years. Its northern deserts and even the capital, Niamey, have been the scene of kidnappings linked to al-Qaida terrorists.

Security analysts and Niger's interim government say the terrorists, traffickers and other criminal elements working in the Sahel posed little threat to the elections, though they are expected to pose a formidable challenge for the country's next president.

Niger's constitutional court has 15 days to validate provisional results.

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Look contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

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