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Guineans cast ballots in presidential poll

By Joe Penney, For CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Voters wait for hours to cast ballots
  • Winner will replace ruling military junta
  • Balloting is reported as being peaceful
  • The possibility of violence is real

Conakry, Guinea (CNN) -- Guineans voted in a tense yet historic presidential poll on Sunday, what should be the nation's first free and fair presidential election in its 52-year history.

As the monsoons of the West African republic's notorious rainy season come to a close, Guineans waited in the hot sun for hours to choose between longtime opposition leader Alpha Conde and former prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo. One of the two candidates, who qualified after a first round held in June, will replace a military junta that has ruled since December 2008.

The vote is seen as a key moment in the political trajectory of both Guinea and West Africa as a whole. Successful elections would mark an end to decades of military and strongman rule, providing the key to stability and economic development. However, the army could wind up holding on to power in Guinea if the election is contested and civil strife results.

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As polls closed on Sunday, there were no major reports of violence or technical difficulties, and most Guineans were very happy with the peaceful atmosphere. But diplomats, voters, and politicians in Conakry, Guinea's run-down peninsular seaside capital, are wary of the future after violence and intimidation in the run-up to the election displaced at least 2,800 ethnic Peul people who support Cellou Dalein Diallo.

A violent challenge to election results "would be very dangerous, but I have hope that this type of thing will not happen because what you see and what is in our hearts as Guineans is completely different most of the time ... We are all together," said Julien Beavogui, a medical student in Conakry.

Guinea's interim president and military junta leader, Gen. Sekouba Konate, set the tone for the vote with an address to the nation on Saturday evening.

"The time has come to break definitively with a past of violence, disorder, rivalry, hate and passion to found a new society for the future -- democratic and full of respect for life, human dignity, all the values that contribute to the progress of humanity and great nations," Konate said.

If little Guinea -- one of Africa's poorest countries, despite enormous mineral wealth -- held relatively clean elections accepted by both candidates, the consequences would be favorable for both the nation and the region.

Elections "will open a new era in which those who govern are accountable to those they govern, and can be voted out of office for doing a bad job. That, in itself, is a sea change," anthropologist and Guinea specialist Michael McGovern of Yale University recently said.

A successful poll, absent rigging and with results accepted by both candidates, would provide a suitable political environment for foreign investment; under current circumstances, many firms see the country as too risky to invest in. A successful election would also open the doors to international aid, providing the country with the necessary capital to start much-needed infrastructure projects. But it would also provide access to lucrative mining contracts for the ruling party -- a big incentive for the losing candidate to contest the results.

The CENI, Guinea's electoral commission, showed its capacity in June, when the first round of voting was held and is regarded as the nation's most credible and democratic election ever. Diallo won 43.7 percent of the first round vote, while second-place Conde took 18.2 percent, according to official figures.

Although Diallo is still the election front-runner, Conde has been gaining momentum and the poll is likely to be close.

Much depends on how Diallo and Conde, who draw support from the two largest ethnic groups, the Peul and the Malinke, mobilize their parties after the vote.

The Red Cross said on Tuesday that 2,800 ethnic Peul supporters of Cellou Dalein Diallo were displaced between October 29 and October 30 alone. But many more commercial trucks and containers full of ethnic Peul people and all their belongings have left the eastern towns of Siguiri and Kouroussa since October 22.

Those displaced said that they were threatened with death by the towns' residents if they did not leave before the election. Local officials for Diallo's party claim the total number of displaced is between 15,000 to 20,000.

The possibility of violence is real, as the security situation is fragile. But McGovern believes what is more likely is a cautious acceptance of results and incorporation of the losing side into the ruling coalition.

"Guineans really want their candidate to win [whichever one that is], but they also really do not want to slide into a civil war," McGovern wrote. "That doesn't mean there are no people with nefarious intentions, but I do think they are outnumbered in a big way."