ACCRA Ghana electoral workers tallied final ballots on Saturday in a tight election troubled by delays and technical glitches, but which officials hope will burnish the country's reputation as a model democracy in Africa.
Incumbent President John Dramani Mahama was in a near-deadlock with rival Nana Akufo-Addo, according to early unofficial results, raising the prospect of a repeat of the close race in 2008 that pushed Ghana to the brink of chaos.
The elections have been plagued by delays after hundreds of electronic fingerprint readers - used to identify voters - failed on Friday and forced some polling stations to reopen on Saturday to clear the backlog.
"This election has been hard, but we must remember Ghanaians are one and we must love each other and remain peaceful," said Wellington Dadzie, 69, a former soldier who lives on the outskirts of the capital Accra.
Ghana's more than 30 years of peace and an oil-driven economic boom have earned it a reputation as a bulwark of stability and progress in West Africa, a region better known for civil wars, coups, and corruption.
Both presidential hopefuls were carrying just under 50 percent of the ballots, according to an unofficial tally compiled from more than half the country's polling stations and published late on Saturday by local media.
The General Secretary of Akufo-Addo's party, Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie, held a late-night press conference claiming he had seen figures showing Akufo-Addo had won with 51 percent.
"We are not declaring results, but the figures we have seen as of this evening indicate that the wishes of those who supported the NPP have been fulfilled," he said, urging party faithful to wear all white on Sunday.
Deputy Information Minister James Agyenim-Boateng condemned the NPP statement as reckless and provocative. "It clearly violates the way we are supposed to do things," he said.
Ghana's election commission has yet to issue any results, but is expected to release figures Sunday or Monday.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Ghana a model democracy after it stepped away from the brink in 2008 polls, when initial disputes over the close results caused street protests.
Mahama replaced the late John Atta Mills after his death in July, and has promised to use the country's growing oil wealth to boost average income and jumpstart development in a country where the average person lives on $4 a day.
Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) has vowed to provide free education and root out graft.
But in a country where campaign messages rarely influence voting choices, many believe most of the 14 million voters will cast their ballots based on ethnic, social or regional ties.
Ghanaians are also electing a parliament, where Mahama's National Democratic Party has enjoyed a slim majority.
GLITCHES AND DELAYS
Hundreds of electronic fingerprint readers malfunctioned on Friday, causing some people who had waited hours to vote to burst into tears.
An election commission official said 1.6 percent of the country's 26,000 polling stations had to reopen on Saturday to clear the backlog, adding officials would launch an investigation into why the machines broke down.
The head of the West African ECOWAS observer mission, former Nigerian head of state Olesegun Obasanjo, said electoral workers had apparently failed to change the batteries on time - but added the glitches did not affect the legitimacy of the vote.
"There were hiccups, but these hiccups will not grossly undermine the results of the election," he said.
Ghana has had five peaceful and constitutional transfers of power since its last coup in 1981, in stark contrast to the turmoil that surrounds it in the region.
Neighbouring Ivory Coast tipped into civil war last year after a disputed 2010 poll and regional neighbours Mali and Guinea-Bissau have both suffered coups this year.
"These elections are important not just to Ghana but for the growing number of states and actors seeking to benefit from increasing confidence in Africa," said Alex Vines, Africa Research Director at Chatham House.
Akufo-Addo, a trained lawyer and son of a former Ghanaian president, has criticised the ruling party for not creating jobs and easing poverty fast enough, and says he would use oil money to pay for free primary and secondary education.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Joe Bavier and Sophie Hares)