Bissau: Voters in Guinea Bissau kicked off an election on Sunday which was meant to steer the coup-prone West African state towards stability, but could instead extend its decades-long history of turmoil if the results are contested.
The stakes are high for international partners keen to see the tiny nation clamp down on rampant narcotics trafficking that has made it the main African transit point for South American cocaine bound for Europe.
An estimated 800-1,000 kg of cocaine are flown into Guinea-Bissau every night, according to a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable, along with an unknown amount ferried by sea into the maze of mangrove-lined islands that make up much of its coast.
The election`s main candidates have promised to make fighting drugs a priority, though observers say doing so will require more foreign aid as well as alliances within a military believed by many to be complicit in the drugs trade.
About 25 people lined up at an open-air polling station earlier on Sunday in the centre of the capital Bissau to cast their ballots as polls opened.
"We are hoping this election will bring us a president who can develop this country," said Sekou Gassama, a 52-year-old driver.
While voting is expected to pass peacefully in the country of 1.6 million, the result may prove contentious: opposition figures have accused ruling party candidate Carlos Gomes Junior of marring the poll by refusing to update a voter register from 2008, leaving more than 100,000 off the rolls.
Rival candidate Kumba Yala, a former president who shares the Balanta ethnicity with more than 25 percent of the population and the majority of the armed forces, said he would seek to have the results overturned if Gomes Junior wins.
"We will never accept the fabrication of results," he said at his home in Bissau, a sleepy city of crumbling buildings near a river that drains into the Atlantic.
A dispute over the results could raise the chances of the military stepping in, as it has done repeatedly since independence from Portugal in 1974, with coups, arrests and political assassinations.
The challenges to stability are huge in a country whose main official export is cashews: an ordinary Bissau Guinean lives on less than $2 a day and a combination of military meddling and health problems has prevented any president from serving a full term since multi-party politics began in 1994.
Gomes Junior, a former banker reputed to be Bissau`s richest man, served for years as prime minister under presidents Joao Bernardo Vieira, assassinated in 2009, and Malam Bacai Sanha, who died in Paris in January after a long illness.
He won tacit international support during his time in office for economic reforms and speaking out against drugs smuggling and indiscipline in the notoriously unruly army.
The Paris Club cancelled $283 million in debt last May, the IMF has provided a line of credit and Angola has pitched in money and troops for army reform.
"Carlos Gomes Junior is a man with lots of experience. He has proven his worth running Guinea Bissau," said Sambala Kanoute, 46, a musician in Bissau.
But his rivals say he has been weakened by a split in the ruling PAIGC party over his candidacy - which has turned controversial, they say, because of the turmoil and increased drugs running that accompanied his time in government.
An influential member of the party forged during Guinea Bissau`s struggle for independence, Manuel Sherifo Nhamadjo, dropped out to run against Gomes Junior as an independent in a move that could split the vote.
"During Gomes Junior`s time, there have been a lot of assassinations, deaths in the country. We want peace," said Malam Camara, a 42-year-old mechanic, during Nhamadjo`s carnival-like rally on Friday, which drew thousands of people and blocked traffic on a major thoroughfare.
Results are expected within a week. If no candidate wins an outright majority, a run-off will be held probably in April.