Guinea-Bissau votes amid major challenges

Election aims to draw line under 2012 military coup that plunged Africa's first "narco-state" into chaos.

    Voters in Guinea-Bissau have begun casting their ballots to elect a new president and legislators in an election meant to draw a line under a 2012 military coup that plunged the West African nation into chaos.

    The front-runner in a field of 13 for the presidency is Jose Mario Vaz, the former finance minister and candidate of the dominant African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

    Most of the presidential candidates come from a new generation of politicians. Chief among these is Paulo Gomes, a former World Bank executive and Harvard graduate who is seen as the strongest challenger to Vaz.

    Nearly 800,000 voters, most of them young and voting for the first time, are expected to take part in the ballot which could usher in new leadership in the coup-prone nation that has been dubbed Africa's first "narco-state".

    Reporting from a polling station in the capital Bissau, Al Jazeera's Catherine Soi said that people are hopeful that the elections will bring them the change they want and make their lives a little more bearable. 

    The former Portuguese colony is home to 1.6 million people and covers about 28,000 sq km. Weak state
    institutions and an intricate coast of islands and unpoliced mangrove creeks have made it a paradise for smugglers of Latin American cocaine, mainly destined for Europe.

    If no candidate wins an outright majority, a second round will be held between the top two candidates.

    The country's last attempt at an election two years ago was aborted when soldiers under army chief Antonio Injai stormed the presidential palace days before a scheduled presidential run-off.

    Twice delayed, Sunday's vote was organised after pressure on the transition government from the UN, the US, the EU and West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which has been bankrolling the interim government.

    The poll is seen as a last chance for Guinea-Bissau, as donors become weary of turmoil in the impoverished nation. No elected president has completed a five-year term since a war of independence from Portugal ended in 1976.

    Speaking to Al Jazeera, Elisabete Azevedo-Harman, a research fellow with the African Programme at Chatham House, said "any government that will come up from these elections, will not be able to do it by themselves, they need the support of the International community."

    About 80 percent of the country's population depends on cashew farming, which is the biggest cash earner.

    However, post-election stability could help attract investors to the country's untapped mineral resources, including bauxite, phosphate and offshore oil. About 110m euros in EU aid, frozen after a 2011 military uprising, could be unblocked too.

    "The atmosphere around the country is calm, we are not expecting any hitches," Jose Ramos-Horta, the former president of East Timor who is now UN Special Representative in Guinea-Bissau, told Reuters news agency in the crumbling capital.

    "In the last few days of campaigning, the tensions observed a few weeks ago have dissipated."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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