President Mamadou Tandja has won a second five-year term in office, becoming Niger's first head of state to secure re-election as the arid landlocked country enters a new era of political stability.
Official results, released late Tuesday, showed the retired army colonel won a resounding 65.5 percent of the vote in last weekend's run-off round of the election against challenger Mahamadou Issoufou, who nonetheless clocked up a larger-than-expected 34.5 percent.
Tandja is the first elected leader of the large but sparsely-populated country, which is two-thirds desert, to have completed a term in office without being toppled by a coup or assassinated.
“The significance of this election is that it went off well,” said one West Africa analyst who asked not to be named. “Tandja has brought stability to the nation.”
Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and ranks second to bottom on the UN ‘s Human Development Index of 177 countries.
Depending on meagre earnings from the export of cotton and uranium, about 60 percent of the 11 million population lives on less than one US dollar a day. The UN estimates that only one in five of the country's inhabitants enjoys proper sanitation and only four out of 10 have access to clean drinking water.
But issues such as jobs and education played a back-seat role in Tandja’s campaign for re-election which focused firmly on promises of stability.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) said 45 percent of Niger's five million eligible voters had cast a ballot on Saturday.
Commenting as early results showed Tandja heading for victory, Prime Minister Hama Amadou said it was a resounding vote of confidence in the incumbent.
"When you work satisfactorily, the people reward you,” he said.
However, Issoufou, the socialist challenger and former prime minister, did better than expected. He homed in on youth and the need for more jobs and schools in a country where just one third of young children are in classes.
Even though four of Tandja’s first-round opponents had called on their supporters to vote for the incumbent, offering the president a safe win, Issoufou increased his share of the ballot by 10 points in the final vote, from a first-round score of 24.6 percent to 34.5 percent in the final round, according to CENI.
Analysts said the presidential opponents knocked out in the first stage, had been playing the tactics game when they threw their support behind Tandja.
“Tandja’s presidential opponents decided to back the winning side to boost their stakes in the new administration,” the West Africa specialist said. “The next thing to watch will be the composition of a new cabinet.”
He said Prime Minister Amadou, the real power behind the throne, was likely to win a new nomination.
Underlining the consolidation of democracy in Niger, which held its first multiparty polls in 1993, Miguel Trovouda, one of around 90 observers from the European Union and African Union, said the organisation of the election as well as the vote count were "satisfactory and in conformity with regulations."
CENI won widespread praise for its handling of the first round. It faced the daunting task of collecting results from 14,533 polling stations, many of them unreachable by telephone and drafted helicopters in to help gather ballots in a country that is twice as big as the former colonial power, France.
In the race for the 113 seats in the newly-expanded parliament, six parties backing Tandja won a combined 88 seats, while Issoufou’s opposition Niger Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) won 25, CENI said.
Tandja’s own party, the National Movement for a Developing Society (MNSD), won 47 seats.
In the outgoing parliament which consisted of just 83 seats, the MNSD had 38 seats and the PNDS had 17.
Tandja, who is 66 and a member of the minority Kanori people, has been a constant player in Niger's chequered political and military history over the past three decades.
He first emerged on the public scene as a 36-year-old colonel in 1974, when Lieutenant-Colonel Seyni Kountche toppled the government, accusing it of misappropriating food aid.
Under the largely stable years of the Kountche regime, which swept away corruption and strived for economic recovery, Tandja successively headed an environmental campaign against desertification, joined the cabinet as interior minister and was appointed ambassador to Nigeria.
Later, under a new military leadership, he was again named interior minister in 1990 and was responsible for security operations against arms trafficking and banditry allegedly run by nomadic Tuareg populations in the remote north. The brutal put-down of a Tuareg protest in 1991 left 63 people dead.
As the military prepared to return political power to civilians and Niger suffered years of chronic instability, Tandja took over the leadership in 1991 of the MNSD.
He made two failed bids for presidential office in 1993 and 1996 but finally won in 1999 after his predecessor, a general who had staged a coup, was assassinated by his own guards on the tarmac during an airport ceremony.