Calm Guinea-Bissau votes to replace slain leader
BISSAU (Reuters) - People in Guinea-Bissau voted on Sunday in an election to replace the slain president of the West African state, hoping for a chance to end years of turmoil worsened by military infighting and cocaine smuggling cartels.
President Joao Bernardo Vieira was shot dead by soldiers in March in apparent revenge for the killing of the head of the army. Eleven candidates are standing on Sunday. One top contender was killed during the election campaign.
There were no reports of trouble on Sunday and voters queued in Bissau, the run-down coastal capital of the former Portuguese colony.
"This is a great day. I'm voting for peace, calm and stability," said trader Binta Diallo. "I want a president able to bring peace and quiet and to end the criminality."
The vote is a test not only for the country of around 1.6 million people, but for a region worried at the retreat of democracy after coups in Guinea and Mauritania and a deepening political crisis in Niger.
Whoever wins, however, faces the challenge of pulling the state back from failure and reforming security forces that are little more than rival militias.
"The military has been far too dominant in Bissau-Guinean politics to date, so there is a real need for the international community to offer support for capacity building," said Kissy Agyeman-Togobo of IHS Global Insight.
The three front-runners all pledge peace and justice.
The biggest party in parliament, the PAIGC, is represented by Malam Bacai Sanha, interim president from 1999-2000 after a coup and brief civil war.
"The ballot is hugely important for bringing the return of peace stability and security," Bacai Sanha said as he voted, expressing confidence that he would win.
Former President Koumba Yala, overthrown in a 2003 coup, is also expected to do well. The former philosophy professor has the backing of the biggest tribe, the Balante.
Henrique Pereira Rosa, standing as an independent, served as interim president between the overthrow of Yala and the 2005 election won by Vieira.
It is possible there will be no outright winner in the ballot of around 600,000 voters on Sunday, meaning a second round would be held.
Polling stations opened officially at 7 a.m. (0700 GMT), although there were delays at some. They close at 5 p.m. About 150 foreign observers monitored the poll.
Guinea-Bissau's instability and the squabbling within the military has been worsened by the involvement of Colombian cocaine cartels. They took advantage of unpoliced islands and creeks as staging points for shipping drugs to Europe.
But the U.N. body responsible for fighting drugs and crime told Reuters this week that the disappearance of many of those in Guinea-Bissau who were closest to the drug dealers had cut trafficking dramatically.
Guinea-Bissau's most important formal exports are fish and cashew nuts.
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