* Parliamentary election first of three votes
* President poll on April 9, state elections on April 16
* Campaigning in some areas marred by violence
By Nick Tattersall
LAGOS, April 2 Nigeria begins three successive
weekends of nationwide elections with parliamentary polls on
Saturday, a test of whether Africa's most populous country can
break with a history of vote fraud and violence.
Ballot stuffing, intimidation of voters and thuggery were so
widespread in the last elections in 2007 that foreign observers
questioned whether they reflected the will of the people, saying
they fell far below international standards.
The electoral commission hopes a new voters' register,
tighter polling procedures and better security will help stamp
out fraud, but there has already been violence in several
regions during campaigning.
"Twelve years ago, our dear country returned to democratic
rule and we began a journey that many expected by now would have
produced a stable democratic system ... Unfortunately, this is
still not the case," said Attahiru Jega, chairman of the
Independent National Electoral Commission.
"The elections we are about to commence ... provide the
chance for us as a nation to get it right."
Land borders were closed ahead of Saturday's vote and only
election officials, security forces and emergency staff were
allowed to travel on the roads during voting hours.
Gunmen threw explosives into a police station in the central
city of Bauchi late on Friday in an apparent attempt to cause
panic, although many officers had already left for the day and
there was no immediate confirmation of casualties.
Police in Delta state in the oil-producing Niger Delta,
where there has been political violence in the past, said they
had arrested two men in a minibus carrying AK-47 rifles,
ammunition and a rocket launcher days ahead of the vote.
Graphic on elections: link.reuters.com/xet78r
For more stories, background and analysis: [nLDE68H051]
The build-up to the polls has risked exposing ethnic and
religious fault lines in the country of 150 million people,
roughly split between a Muslim north and Christian south but
with sizeable minorities living in both regions.
There have been isolated bomb attacks on campaign rallies,
riots in the state of Akwa Ibom on the edge of the oil-producing
Niger Delta, a series of killings in the remote northeast blamed
on a radical Islamist sect, and sectarian clashes in the central
"Middle Belt" in recent weeks.
In other areas, observers have seen less evidence of
politicians arming gangs to intimidate and harass voters than in
the run-up to the last polls in 2007.
Saturday's vote will be a litmus test for the presidential
election a week later and the state governorship polls in two
weeks' time, both of them ballots in which the stakes for the
country as a whole are considerably higher.
In Nigeria's do-or-die political culture, parliamentary
elections are also fiercely contested by candidates eager for
the spoils of the job -- a pay package whose allowances alone
top $1 million a year. [nLDE7300WJ]
Violence could reduce the turnout in the later polls.
President Goodluck Jonathan is seen as the front-runner in
the presidential race on April 9, but the ruling People's
Democratic Party (PDP) is expected to see its parliamentary
The PDP holds more than three-quarters of the 360 seats in
the House of Representatives and of the 109 in the Senate.
The National Emergency Management Agency has cancelled leave
for its staff and identified a third of the country's 36 states
as potential flashpoints during the elections.
Amnesty International said at least 20 people had been
killed in political attacks and clashes in the past two weeks,
and scores of cars and buildings had been burned.
(For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the
top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ )
(Additional reporting by Abdulwahab Muhammed in Bauchi, Austin
Ekeinde in Port Harcourt, Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Writing by
Nick Tattersall; Editing by Andrew Dobbie)