BISSAU, November 16 – Tiny, poverty stricken Guinea Bissau, seen as a major African drugs hub, goes to the polls Sunday for parliamentary elections observers hope will bring stability to the West African nation.
After an election campaign marked by mutual accusations from the major parties that their rivals were funded by drugs money, international observers said on the eve of the vote that "everything is ready".
"The staff at the national electoral commission and the people in the regions have done some remarkable work," the head of the European Union’s electoral observer mission Johan van Hecke said.
"We’ve toured the country (and) we think it’s ready for the elections," he added, praising the "remarkable work" done.
The vote is seen a crucial step in the rebuilding of the country — a decade on from an 11-month civil war that wracked the country in 1998-9.
In past decades, the former Portuguese colony has been plagued by bloody coups and uprisings. Recently the country, ranked as one of the world’s poorest nations, has become a transit point for Latin American drugs destined for Europe.
Last month the United Nations said it was "seriously concerned by the continued growth in drug trafficking as well as organised crime which threatens peace and security in Guinea-Bissau and in the (west African) sub-region."
The issue of drug-trafficking has taken centre stage in the election campaign with the major parties accusing each other of being funded with drugs money.
There has been a flurry of spending from the big parties expected to take most of the vote Sunday, with luxury mansions and big trucks being hired by the campaigns, said one foreign observer who did not want to be named.
According to United Nations Development Program "absolute poverty effects two in every three inhabitants" in Guinea Bissau.
At the final rally of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cap Verde (PAIGC), favoured to win a large share of the vote, over 15,000 people, many dressed in party T-shirts and caps turned out to listen to speeches and African bands, some of which had flown in especially from Paris.
The PAIGC has been at the centre of politics in Guinea Bissau almost continuously for 34 years is led by former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior.
One of their main rivals in the poll is expected to be the newly formed Republican Party for Independence and Development (PRID) headed by a Aristides Gomes a very close ally of president Joao Bernardo Vieira, who was ousted from the PAIGC and won the 2005 presidential elections as an independent.
Local journalists say the PRID is also doing some conspicuous spending, buying 60 brand-new four-by-four, double-wide all-terrain vehicles.
"There are people with bad intentions who say the PRID has money, cars and that this is drugs money but all that is not true," PRID spokesman Abdu Mane told AFP.
"If they can prove it comes from drugs they should report in to the public prosecutor," he insisted.
To ensure the elections go well the international community has sent more than 150 observers, 50 with the EU mission, and spent more than eight million dollars (six million euros) to help organise it.
Some 540,000 people are expected to go to the polls Sunday. Voting is due to start at 7 am (0700 GMT).
International experts say the country, which lists cashew exports as its biggest source of income, is in danger of becoming Africa’s first "narco-state". According to them the poor and politically unstable country does not have strong enough state institutions to take on the international drugs cartels.
The international community hopes the elections will pave the way for a stronger parliament and government that will push through needed institutional reforms.