Voters in Guinea-Bissau formed long queues on Sunday to elect a new president and parliament they hope will bring stability to the West African state two years after a military coup.
The last attempt at an election, in 2012, was aborted when troops under army chief Antonio Indjai stormed the presidential palace days before a presidential run-off was due to take place.
Indjai released two doves after he voted early on Sunday, as a symbol of peace, but he declined to make any statement about the twice delayed election which has finally taken place under pressure from donors and regional powers that want to see an end to decades of conflict and instability.
No elected president has completed a five-year term in the former Portuguese colony which has become a major transit point for smugglers ferrying cocaine to Europe.
“I’ve voted for Guinea-Bissau. This is the last chance, things must change,” said Augusto Francisco da Fonseca Regala, a 55-year-old architect, raising an index finger stained with purple ink to confirm he had cast his ballot.
“For two years, everything has been on standstill. I hope this election will bring peace and stability so that we can get back to work and develop the country,” he said.
Around the capital, lines of voters snaked into potholed streets from polling stations set up in schools, under mango trees and one in an abandoned cinema. Polls opened at 0700 GMT and were due to close at 1700.
Jose Ramos-Horta, U.N. Special Representative in Guinea-Bissau, told Reuters there had not been any reports of hitches and tensions seen during campaigning had eased.
The frontrunner of 13 presidential candidates is Jose Mario Vaz, a former finance minister running for the dominant African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).
“We need to stabilize Guinea-Bissau. I cannot do this alone but with the help of everyone in Guinea-Bissau,” Vaz said after voting.
The PAIGC party machinery makes it likely to secure a majority the 100-seat parliament but Vaz’s victory is far from certain because of public anger at traditional parties. Many of the 800,000 registered voters are voting for the first time and are eager to usher in new leadership.
Vaz’s candidacy is also tainted by accusations from Bissau’s attorney general of involvement in the embezzlement of a $12.5 million grant from Angola, something Vaz denies.
His main challenger is Paulo Gomes, a former World Bank executive and Harvard graduate. Another independent candidate, Nuno Gomes Nabian, the former chair of Bissau’s civil aviation agency, has the support of the army.
If no candidate wins an outright majority, a second round will be held between the top two.
Guinea-Bissau is home to 1.6 million people and covers about 10,800 square miles (28,000 sq km). Weak state institutions and a labyrinthine coast of islands and mangrove creeks have made it a paradise for smugglers of Latin American cocaine.
“We are tired of military coups. Everybody is tired, we just want the country to get back to normal,” said 77-year-old retired civil servant Alexandre Vierra.
About 80 percent of the population depends on cashew farming, but post-election stability could help attract investors to untapped mineral resources including bauxite, phosphate and offshore oil.
Some 110 million euros in European Union aid, frozen after a 2011 military uprising, could be unblocked too.