Voters went to the polls yesterday in Guinea-Bissau for a presidential runoff between two former heads of state of the coup-prone West African nation, whose veteran leader was assassinated in May.
Observers hope the new president will bring a degree of stability to the former Portuguese colony of 1.3 million people, which has suffered repeated coups since independence in 1974 and now is a haven for drug runners.
Some 2,700 polling stations nationwide began opening at 7am and around 700,000 voters were eligible to cast ballots before they closed at 5pm.
Lines began to form outside polling booths on the Amilcar Cabral avenue in central Bissau as voting got under way.
Sidi Mankale, the electoral official in charge of a polling station in a former soccer club, said: “We began at 7 am and its about the same turnout as the first round.”
In the Chao Pepel district of Bissau, voters were thin on the ground, but electoral official Ankouan Lopez said: “There aren’t many voters because people are going to church first before coming to vote.”
Two former presidents, Malam Bacai Sanha and Kumba Yala, won the biggest share of the vote in the first round on June 28. Sanha secured 39.59 percent of the first-round ballots — a 10-point advantage over Yala.
The vote was triggered by the killing of long-time president Joao Bernardo Vieira by soldiers on March 2, in an apparent revenge attack after the assassination of army chief General Batista Tagme Na Waie in a bomb attack.
Last month the army killed two senior political figures in what they claimed was an operation to foil a coup plot.
Guinea-Bissau has been overwhelmed by the international drugs trade, becoming a key transit point in cocaine smuggling between South America and Europe.
But another priority for the new president will simply be clinging on to power. None of the three presidents elected in the past 15 years has managed to complete his full five-year term.
The murder of Vieira, who ruled Guinea-Bissau for much of the past 25 years, came about a decade after the military ousted him during a previous stint as president.
Sanha, 62, the candidate for the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), served as interim president from June 1999 to May 2000.
And Yala, 56, who was running yesterday as head of the Social Renewal Party, was forced out by the army in 2003.
Yala and Sanha have already faced each other in a second-round runoff for Guinea-Bissau’s presidency in 2000, when Yala emerged victorious.
Yesterday’s runoff round was originally to have been held on Aug. 2 but was brought forward to encourage a higher turnout as the later date could have intefered with harvest work.
Both rounds of the election have been financed entirely by the international community at a cost of 5.1 million euros (US$7.2 million ).
The national electoral commission (CNE) said about 150 international observers would be on the ground for yesterday’s vote and nearly 4,900 soldiers, police and paramilitary would be deployed to ensure security.