BISSAU: Guinea-Bissau voted on Sunday in a presidential election seen as a key test for the fragile state but marred by reports of violent intimidation tactics against supporters of the front-runner.
Already mired in poverty, the west African nation has been stagnating since 2012 under the rule of an army-backed transitional government, with the economy anaemic and drug trafficking fuelling corruption.
Almost 800,000 voters have a choice between former finance minister Jose Mario Vaz, who won the first round on April 13 but failed to get an outright majority, and runner-up Nuno Gomes Nabiam, an independent.
Vaz told reporters as he arrived at a Bissau polling station with his wife Celestina that party colleagues had been attacked by "armed men" trying to influence the outcome.
"Some of my party`s leaders have been intimidated by armed men who attacked them or their homes. That is unacceptable," said Vaz, who was flanked by bodyguards.
His African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde said 15 senior members had been targeted, but did not elaborate on the circumstances or speculate on the identity of the aggressors.
"We are in a democracy. It is inexcusable that people use force to prevent other citizens exercising their civic duty," Vaz said.
The all-powerful army, long accused of involvement with drug cartels, stopped the 2012 election with a coup between rounds, and analysts have described its role this time as "the big unknown".
"The military high command supports Nuno, but will the army dare to intervene again in the current context, with a large number of observers and the international community closely following the process?" said Bissau-based political analyst Bamba Kote.Vaz has vowed to pursue "ongoing dialogue" with the military if he is named the new president, with election results expected within five days.
With a 40.9 percent share of the first-round vote against Nabiam`s 24.8 percent, the 57-year-old father-of-three is the establishment candidate.
Nabiam, an engineer, has campaigned as the "unifying" choice, capable of bringing stability to his country.
"I am confident that victory will be on my side, because I have travelled across the country and I think my message was well received," he told reporters as he cast his ballot in the capital.
Crowds were already gathering outside many polling stations across the city as voting began, with some 3,000 centres due to remain open until 6:00 pm (1800 GMT).
The former Portuguese colony is the only west African nation to have achieved independence through military force and, since 1974, the army and state have been in constant, often deadly, competition.
Its 1.6 million people have suffered intermittent unrest since liberation, as well as a series of military coups attributed largely to the unprecedented bloating of the army after the war.This has led to chronic instability and a dysfunctional state which, with its porous coastline and abundant islands, provided fertile ground for Latin American drug lords looking for a hub from which to ship their cocaine to Europe.
An elected president has yet to finish his term in office in Guinea-Bissau.
The United States has charged 2012 coup leader Antonio Indjai with drug trafficking and seeking to sell arms to Colombian FARC rebels, although he has not been extradited and remains in Bissau.
The election will be the first since Indjai agreed in May 2012 to hand power to a civilian transitional regime headed by President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo.
Around 4,000 troops were ensuring security while 245 observers from various countries were deployed to polling stations.
A mostly orderly start to the election witnessed in Bissau appeared to have been replicated elsewhere in the country, according to the United Nations and residents contacted by AFP.