Guineans vote in tense presidential election

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.

Main opposition candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo (L) receives his ballot from an electoral commission official at a polling station in Conakry on October 18, 2020, during the Guinea presidential elections. - Guineans began voting in the morning of October 18, 2020, slightly ahead of schedule, to choose their next president in the first high-risk round of an election that marks the start of a busy electoral cycle in West Africa. Cellou Binani / AFP
The poll -- the first in a string across West Africa -- follows months of political unrest, where dozens of people have been killed during security crackdowns on mass anti-Conde protests.

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 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.

Police were out in force in Conakry, following clashes between rival supporters in recent days, but voting appeared calm.

Security Minister Albert Damantang Camara told AFP there had been "no major incidents", although his ministry said "hooligans" had attacked security forces in the capital.

At a news conference, Diallo urged his supporters to "show restraint".

"I have no doubts about the outcome of the election, which is why I do not want violence to disrupt the ballot and jeopardise my victory," he said, adding that he thought Conde may nonetheless "cheat".

'Expect a lot of changes'

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

"We expect a lot of changes, especially for youth unemployment," said the 37-year-old, who graduated from medical school in 2013 and is still seeking a job.

Mohamed Fode Camara, a social-affairs-ministry employee, 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 veering towards authoritarianism.

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

'Years of lies'

Conde and Diallo have faced off twice before in tense polls in 2010 and 2015, but this year's are 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 brushed off the jibes, and often reminded feverish crowds of Diallo's tenure under the autocrat Conte.

Diallo told supporters he wants to turn the page on "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 deployed a similar script used in previous campaigns, telling voters he would make Guinea "Africa's second (economic) power after Nigeria".

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 Conde win would bode ill for democratic norms in the region.

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

On Sunday, the opposition leader accused Conde of seeking a "presidency for life", and some of his supporters have warned they will not be "robbed" of victory.

Camara, the security minister, said he was concerned about hints the opposition may not recognise the election's outcome.

He added that he hoped Diallo would "soon return to his senses".

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.

Topics: Albert Damantang Camara , Guinea , West Africa , Cellou Dalein Diallo , Alassane Ouattara , Albert Damantang Camara
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