BISSAU (Reuters) – Voters in Guinea-Bissau cast ballots on Sunday in a run-off presidential election pitting two former prime ministers who both promise to bring stability to the turbulent West African nation.
Incumbent President Jose Mario Vaz failed to make it to the second round after a five-year term marred by regular high-level sackings, a barely functioning parliament and weeks of turmoil in the run-up to the first-round ballot.
Both candidates say that if elected they will work to overcome a long-running political impasse and modernize the country of 1.6 million people, which has suffered nine coups or attempted coups since independence from Portugal in 1974.
The ruling PAIGC party’s Domingos Simoes Pereira, 56, is seen as the front-runner after winning the first round on Nov. 24 with 40%.
His opponent, Umaro Cissoko Embalo, 47, is a brigadier general who came second with 28%, and political analysts say the run-off race could be close.
Embalo’s candidacy has won support from the main contenders who failed to reach the run-off, including Vaz. After the first round, Embalo questioned the result, saying the final tally between him and Pereira was much closer than official figures had shown.
“The people of Guinea-Bissau are confident, so I stay confident because I follow the people of Guinea-Bissau,” said Pereira, who smiled broadly and posed for photographs with poll workers after voting in the capital, Bissau.
Polling stations opened at 0700 GMT and were due to close at 1700 GMT. Rafael Branco, the head of the African Union observation mission, said voting was going smoothly and that turnout appeared to be slightly higher than in the first round.
The electoral commission is expected to announce the provisional result on Wednesday, Jan. 1.
Guinea-Bissau’s next president will inherit major challenges including widespread poverty and an unstable political system in which the majority party appoints the government but the president has the power to dismiss it.
There have been seven prime ministers since Vaz took over in 2014 and the political instability has hurt the economy, which depends heavily on volatile prices for cashew nuts, the main income source for over two-thirds of households.
Traffickers also exploit Guinea-Bissau’s unpoliced waters and maze of forested islands as trans-shipment points for cocaine en route from South America to Europe.
Although his tenure was turbulent, Vaz is the first Guinea-Bissau president to have completed a full term.
Voters expressed hope that the post-election process would go smoothly so the winner could focus on bringing long-sought change.
“I voted to restore peace and tranquility in Guinea-Bissau, and to contribute to electing a president who is going to unite the whole country,” said Caminho Injai, 65, a cleaning lady, after casting her ballot.
Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Aaron Ross; editing by Richard Pullin and Louise Heavens