Polls have opened in Guinea for the first parliamentary elections in more than a decade, after a series of delays and a campaign plagued by deadly unrest.
Saturday’s poll is regarded as the first genuinely democratic parliamentary election for the West African nation after a 2002 referendum held during military dictatorship was dismissed as a sham.
Voters have a choice of more than 1,700 candidates vying for 114 seats in a national assembly which will replace the transitional parliament that has run the country since military rule ended in 2010.
Voting has been delayed numerous times amid disputes over its organisation, amplifying deadly ethnic tensions that have plagued Guinean politics since the country’s independence from France in 1958.
Alpha Conde, Guinea’s president, however, says he remains optimistic.
“These elections will allow us to emerge from a chaotic five-year transition,” he told reporters, expressing hope that the vote would signal a new era of prosperity where the country would be free to profit from its vast mineral wealth.
The opposition party has accused the president’s camp and the electoral commission of conniving to rig Saturday’s vote, an accusation that culminated in violent protests throughout the capital.
Earlier this week, renewed clashes across the city concluded with 70 people wounded and a trainee police officer killed.
Any political struggle must be made for Guinea and not against it. Muslims and Christians, all religious leaders call on people to do their patriotic duty without violence.
Guinea’s Muslim and Christian leaders called for a peaceful election day, urging all parties to put their country before their own interests in an attempt to diminish violence.
“Any political struggle must be made for Guinea and not against it. Muslims and Christians, all religious leaders call on people to do their patriotic duty without violence,” said Mamadou Saliou Camara, the grand imam of Conakry.
While ethnic and religious divides are certainly real, they are routinely exploited as a political tool to rally supporters.
“We do not have the feeling that the ethnic conflict is the main ignition for this situation. It’s definitely a tool for the politicians to use,” said Florent Geel, Africa Director for the Paris-Based International Federation for Human Rights, adding that it is “a well-established practice” in Guinea
As one of the poorest countries in the region, despite vast potential for mineral exploitation, Guinea was run by a succession of autocratic rulers after gaining independence from France in 1958.
A military government took control in December 2008 at the death of President Lansana Conte, which was followed by civilian rule in 2010 that was marred by violent ethnic clashes.