With elections, Niger starts return to civilian rule

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Moving away from military rule, this poverty-stricken desert nation on Wednesday elected a civilian president and legislature.

Moving away from military rule, this poverty-stricken desert nation on Wednesday elected a civilian president and legislature.

While official polling results had not been announced, checks at polling booths around Niamey, the capital, and reports from the interior all reflected light turnout.

Wednesday evening, polling officials had begun counting ballots cast in the presidential and legislative voting.

There were no reports of violence.

Voter turnout, which had been extremely low in the morning, increased only slightly in the afternoon. Regional electoral officials said in rural areas many farmers had first gone to their plantations before voting.

Most Nigeriens, frustrated after years of mis-rule under both civilian and military governments, showed little interest in the vote.

"I think that after these elections Niger will have an economic renaissance," proclaimed, Ali Ado, a Niamey merchant who then admitted he wasn't planning to vote at all, saying he had no loyalty to any particular political party.

But the country's junta leader sad he was pleased that the elections had come off.

"I'm proud and satisfied because the Nigerien people are demonstrating to the entire world that they are capable of...national reconciliation," said Daouda Malam Wanke.

Wanke took control of Niger in April after former President Ibrahim Mainassara Bare was assassinated by members of his own presidential guard unit, which Wanke headed.

But Wanke has kept his word, so far, to return this country to civilian rule. On Tuesday, he pledged that his government would remain neutral and promised free and fair elections.

The new president will take control in Niger on January 1.

About 4 million voters had been expected to take part in Wednesday's second round of voting. The results will determine a replacement for Wanke and who will constitute the new 83-seat national assembly.

A first round was held October 17, but none of the seven presidential candidates received the majority required to win the vote outright. The two top vote earners, retired military man and a former prime minister, were vying for the presidency.

The stakes are high for Niger, one of the world's poorest countries. Foreign donors are withholding almost all aid until Wanke restores democratic rule.

Continued isolation would be devastating for a country where many hospitals don't have medicine, many schools don't have furniture and government employees can go months without a paycheck.

Retired military officer Tandja Mamadou who won 32 percent of the first round of voting, will face Mahamadou Issoufou, a prime minister in the only previous democratically elected government, who came second with 22 percent. Mamadou was part of a former military regime that governed the country during the 1970s.

The country's national electoral commission said results are not expected until early next week because of the vastness of the country and poor communications.

The October ballot was judged generally free and fair by election monitors, despite minor logistical problems. Just under 44 percent of registered voters participated in the vote. Niger has a population of about 9.7 million.