CONAKRY (Reuters) - Polling wound down peacefully in Guinea on Sunday in a landmark election offering voters their first chance to freely choose a leader since the coup-prone West African state won independence from France in 1958.
The United States hailed the poll’s conduct and observers said turnout was high in a vote which could help trigger more investment in Guinea’s vast mineral resources, unlock more aid to combat poverty and serve as a boost to pro-democracy camps across a region known for coups and tainted votes.
“Voting is peaceful, orderly and there is a sense of excitement,” Yakubu Gowon, the former Nigerian leader heading the observation mission of U.S.-based rights group the Carter Centre, told reporters, estimating turnout at 75-80 percent.
Only last September an army crackdown on pro-democracy marchers resulted in more than 150 deaths and took Guinea close to civil war. Weeks later, junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara was wounded in an assassination attempt and his Western-backed successor pledged to hand back rule to civilians.
With 24 candidates in the running, Sunday’s vote is unlikely to produce a clear winner. Results are expected by Wednesday, after which the front runners are seen forming alliances in a bid to win voters for a July 18 run-off.
“Based on the assessment of local and international observers and our own election monitoring mission, the U.S. embassy believes voting to have gone extraordinarily well particularly in the light of the significant time and logistical challenges,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.
Authorities extended voting for two hours to 8 p.m. (9 p.m. BST). Long queues had formed earlier in the day, but Reuters witnesses who toured polling stations in Conakry said most of the lines had died down by early evening.
“The future president must form a government that unites the candidates,” student Diallo Mamadou Yaya, 23, said of the tough task ahead for the victor, who is seen having to offer government posts to rivals to build a strong administration.
Guinea is the world’s top exporter of the aluminium ore bauxite, and multinational mining companies are wrestling over its lucrative iron ore resources, yet a third of the population of 10 million live in poverty. Whoever becomes president will have a tough job transforming the country.
“We’ve tried to talk about the dividends of democracy not washing over the country immediately,” U.S. ambassador Patricia Moller said.
“This is an important first step in the democratic process.”
Outside the capital, Guineans also turned out in numbers.
“Everything is going well, but there are lots of people here and voting isn’t happening quickly,” said Mohamed Kouyate in Nzerekore, a southeastern town 500 km (310 miles) from Conakry.
Some analysts had worried Nzerekore, a Camara stronghold, would be a flashpoint, but no violent incidents were reported.
Six people were killed in clashes this week between rival parties in the village of Coyah 50 km (30 miles) outside Conakry, but it was the only outbreak of violence for weeks.
Assembly of Guinean People leader Alpha Conde and Cellou Dalein Diallo of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea are among the favourites.
Both belong to large ethnic groups — Malinke and Peul respectively — in a vote that may divide on ethnic lines. Sidya Toure, another top contender, is from the Diakhanke minority.
All have pledged to improve the lot of ordinary Guineans, and some vow to review contracts with foreign firms for bauxite, iron and other resources. Yet analysts say Guinea is aware it needs the mining giants to extract the riches from its soil.
Additional reporting by Media Coulibaly; editing by Mark John and Michael Roddy