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Guineans vote in tense presidential election

  • Police were out in force, but despite fears of violence after sporadic clashes between rival supporters in recent days, voting appeared to be proceeding calmly.
18 Oct 2020

CONAKRY: Voters lined up in Guinea's capital Conakry on Sunday to cast their ballots in a high-stakes presidential election, with the 82-year-old incumbent Alpha Conde bidding for a controversial third term.

Police were out in force, but despite fears of violence after sporadic clashes between rival supporters in recent days, voting appeared to be proceeding calmly.

The poll -- the first in a string across West Africa -- follows months of political unrest in the former French colony, where dozens of people have been killed during security crackdowns on mass protests against Conde's move.

In Sunday's first round, Conde faces challenges from his old rival, the main opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, and 10 other candidates.

There have been fears that the recent tensions have taken on an ethnic dimension, with Conde accused of exploiting divisions during the campaign -- a charge he denies.

Guinea's politics are mainly drawn along ethnic lines: the president's base is mostly from the ethnic Malinke community and Diallo's from the Fulani people.

'Expect a lot of changes'

Mamadou Alpha Barry, his finger stained with purple ink to show he has just voted, said it was "a very important, very special day".

"We expect a lot of changes, especially for youth unemployment, and a change in living conditions because life is hard for 95 percent of Guineans," said the 37-year-old, who graduated from medical school in 2013 and is still looking for a job.

Mohamed Fode Camara, an administrator in the social affairs ministry, said he "feared the day when results are announced".

"God will save us, inshallah," he said, adding that Guineans "want peace, not a fight".

Conde pushed through a new constitution in March, in defiance of mass protests, arguing that it would modernise the country. But the move controversially allowed him to bypass a two-term limit for presidential terms.

After decades as an opposition activist, Conde became Guinea's first democratically-elected president in 2010 and won again in 2015 but rights groups now accuse him of increasingly veering towards authoritarianism.

Diallo, 68, was formerly a prime minister under authoritarian leader Lansana Conte.

Conde and Diallo have faced off twice before in tense polls in 2010 and 2015, but this year's is especially fraught.

The old rivals traded bitter insults on the campaign trail. Diallo frequently raised Conde's age, for example, and encouraged him to "retire with dignity".

But the octogenarian president, who spent decades in exile, brushed off the gibes, and often reminded feverish crowds of Diallo's tenure under the autocrat Conte.

Diallo told supporters he wants to "turn the nightmarish page of 10 years of lies", and criticised police repression, corruption, youth unemployment and poverty.

A self-described technocrat, Diallo also took to pointing at his watch in public, symbolising that Conde's time is up.

Conde argues that he has modernised the nation of 13 million people, and this year stuck to a similar script used in previous campaigns, telling voters he would make Guinea "Africa's second (economic) power after Nigeria," for example.

Despite rich deposits of bauxite, gold and diamonds, and abundant fresh-water supplies, Guinea remains a poor country.

'We will not be robbed'

Sunday's vote marks the start of a busy electoral cycle across West Africa, with votes also due in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger.

Some of the major issues in these elections bear a striking semblance to the political debate in Guinea.

In Ivory Coast, for example, President Alassane Ouattara is running for a third term on October 31 after revising the constitution despite fierce opposition.

Activists are concerned that a win for Conde would bode ill for democratic norms in the region.

There are also concerns the president and Diallo will both claim victory.

Diallo's camp is suspicious of the fairness of the vote, and some supporters have warned they will not be "robbed" of victory.

"We will do exactly as President Obama did. (If) we have our own results, we will tweet them," said Diallo's right-hand man, Fode Oussou Fofana.

Alive to the threat, Guinea's security ministry said Friday that only the country's recognised electoral body can declare a winner.

Some 5.4 million people are registered to vote, and initial results are expected to be announced several days afterwards.

A second round is scheduled for November 24.