Guinea-Bissau holds run-off vote for new president

Voters in tiny Guinea-Bissau, battered by decades of coups and countercoups, have cast ballots for a new president, hoping to elect someone who can bring peace and stability to their impoverished West African nation.

Sunday’s presidential run-off pitted veteran politicians Malam Bacai Sanha and Kumba Yala against each other in a race to succeed Joao Bernardo “Nino” Vieira, who was assassinated in March. The two topped the first round of voting in June, with Sanha taking 39% of the votes to Yala’s 29%.

Polls closed countrywide at 5pm local time. Officials in different districts said voting had happened without incident and estimated voter turnout at between 40% and 60%.
The country has 594 000 registered voters.

Local election official Adulai Balde, whose area is east of the capital, said he saw no problems.

“The voting went calmly, without incident,” Balde said. “I think the rate of voter participation was 60%.”

Fernando Gomes, an election official in the north of the country, estimated turnout at 40%, and also said the vote went peacefully.

Sanha, who voted on Sunday morning in the capital Bissau, said after casting his vote that, “regardless of the winner, these elections mark a positive change for Guinea-Bissau”.

Voters seemed to share his optimism.

“I really hope these elections will allow Guinea-Bissau to find a solid path for democracy and peace,” said Antonio Fernandes (35), one of the first to cast his vote on Sunday. He did not reveal which candidate he chose.

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior appealed for both candidates to accept the official results.

“I demand of the two candidates to respect the results published by the national electoral commission,” he said. “Only this way can we work toward the development of our country.”

Whoever wins faces a huge challenge.

In the 35 years since independence from Portugal, this nation of 1,5-million on the Atlantic Ocean has experienced numerous coups and a civil war. The violence and instability have taken their toll, leaving Guinea-Bissau ranked third from last on the United Nation’s 2008 Human Development Index. Most of its people live without electricity or clean water and the average life expectancy is just 46 years.

The head of the country’s electoral commission, Desejado Lima da Costa, said results are expected next week. The country has 594 000 registered voters.

Vieira, the former president, was killed on March 2 in front of his wife by men wearing army uniforms. He was slain hours after a bomb went off, killing his longtime rival, the head of the armed forces.

No one has been arrested for Vieira’s murder and in the days after his death his bloodstained living room was not even cordoned off with police tape.

During the presidential campaign, one of the 12 candidates running for president was shot dead by security forces. The government later claimed he was plotting a coup, although the man’s family adamantly denied the charge.

Contender Yala was elected president in 2000, but became deeply unpopular as the economy stagnated and civil servant salaries went unpaid. He was overthrown in a bloodless coup three years later.

Sanha, interim president for a year following a 1998-1999 civil war, is representing the main political party.—Sapa-AP

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