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Niger goes to the polls to elect new leader

media Niger polling station AFP / Boureima Hama

Niger's junta leader Salou Djibo called on voters to turn out massively on Monday to elect a new, civilian president and put an end to military rule. The new president will be tasked with leading one of the world's top uranium producers out from under the shadow of a growing threat of violence from al Al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Niger's 6.7 million registered voters will choose between three former allies of the deposed president Mamadou Tandja, and one of his longtime opponents, as well as vote in legislative elections to elect a parliament.

The ruling junta took power in a coup in February of last year, and vowed to usher in civilian rule. No junta member was up for election.

Djibo said the polls offer a new start for Niger.

"This new start will allow authorities freely elected by the people to work and devote themselves to the development of Niger," he said.

Social Democratic Party opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou, faces a challenge from three candidates close to Tandja, includnig Seini Oumarou, the leader of his National Movement for the Development of Society, who is in jail.

Former Prime Minister Hama Amadou is also in the running, along with Mahamane Ousmane, Niger's first democratically-elected president, elected in 1993.

Oumarou, Amadou and Ousmane have created a stir by forging a pact to deny Issoufou victory should no candidate emerge with an overall majority.

In the event one of them finds himself in a head-to-head against the social democrat in a second round, secheduled for 12 March, the other two will give him their full backing.

Most legislative candidates had hoped for the elections to be delayed, citing a number of lists for the legislative vote that had been rejected due to organisational problems.

All candidates are running on similar platforms, with fighting poverty, which afflicts 60 per cent of the population, the main goal, along with a more equitable distribution of income, notably from uranium mining.

The junta took power last year to end a crisis triggered by Tandja's attempts to extend his rule beyond constitutionally-allowed limits.

Tanja will be following the vote from prison, where he was transferred in mid-January from house arrest on allegations of financial misappropriation.

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