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LOME (AFP) – Polls opened on Thursday in parliamentary elections in Togo delayed by months of protests, with the opposition seeking to weaken the ruling family's decades-long grip on power in the west African nation.
Dozens of people were lining up outside a primary school in the capital Lome to cast their ballots as polling stations across the small country opened shortly after 0700 GMT, an AFP reporter saw.
The polls mark the latest step in the impoverished country's transition to democracy after Gnassingbe Eyadema's rule from 1967 to his death in 2005, when the military installed his son Faure Gnassingbe as president.
Gnassingbe has since won elections in 2005 and 2010 in the country of six million people, but the opposition has denounced both as fraudulent.
Thursday's elections are the first legislative polls since 2007, when Gnassingbe's party won 50 of 81 seats. Ninety-one seats will be decided this time.
The voting was initially scheduled for October 2012, but was delayed amid a series of protests by a coalition of opposition and civil society groups known as Let's Save Togo, which has been pushing for sweeping electoral reforms.
Many of the protests were dispersed by security forces firing tear gas, while some 35 people, mostly opposition members, were detained in the run-up to the vote in connection with suspicious fires at two major markets.
Thirteen opposition members held over the fires have since been released, including five candidates in Thursday's polls.
Despite the protests in recent months, the campaign ahead of the vote has been largely peaceful, though the opposition accused pro-government militants of assaulting the convoy of one of its candidates in Kloto, north of the capital, on Tuesday.
The government said it was looking into the incident and could not yet comment.
Opposition members had at first threatened a boycott of the election, but they have since agreed to participate after negotiations which allowed them access to polling places and granted them state financing for campaigning.
On the eve of the election however, opposition members accused the ruling party of planning to carry out fraud and again called for a postponement to address organisational concerns.
Jean Pierre Fabre, the most prominent opposition leader and a candidate in Thursday's vote, said he believed the population wanted change, but warned against the potential for irregularities.
Asked why he did not boycott given his concerns, he said he did not want to leave the parliament without legitimate opposition voices if the ruling party maintains a majority.
"I do not want to let others be face-to-face with those in power," he told AFP on Wednesday.
Gnassingbe's party, formerly the RPT but now known as UNIR (Union for the Republic), has called on voters to grant it a comfortable majority to continue work in areas such as infrastructure improvements.
The president should be given room to govern to continue to "improve the quality of life for the Togolese," said Patricia Dagban-Zonvide, minister of women's advancement and head of the ruling party's list of candidates in Lome.
A number of the best-known opposition candidates have organised themselves into two separate coalitions, Let's Save Togo and Rainbow. Fabre's ANC party is running with Let's Save Togo.
The party of Gilchrist Olympio, the long-time opposition leader and son of the country's first post-independence president, is also taking part, though he is not himself a candidate.
Olympio, whose father was assassinated in a 1963 coup in which the current president's father took part, agreed to a deal in 2010 to have his faction of the opposition join Gnassingbe's government.
Full results are not expected for several days.
West African bloc ECOWAS is deploying 80 observers for the vote, while the African Union has 32.
Presidential elections in 2005 were marred by deadly violence, while 2007 and 2010 polls were viewed by observers as significant steps forward.