, CONAKRY, Jun 27 – Guineans headed to the polls Sunday in the west African nation\’s first democratic election since independence in 1958, hoping to end half a century of military and civilian dictatorships.
Hundreds of men and women waited patiently in long queues around the country to vote in the crucial election just nine months after the army massacre of at least 156 opponents of a military junta in a Conakry stadium.
"I am happy to vote freely," said shopkeeper and mother-of-five Marieme Kande, 50, who was the first to cast her ballot at a polling station at Federico Mayor school in Conakry when voting opened shortly after 0700 GMT.
In a working class neighbourhood in the Conkary suburbs, polling stations were flooded with an enthusiastic but disciplined crowd mostly composed of youths.
"I don\’t know my number," or "where is my polling station?", asked anxious voters who were unable to read in the Cosa neighbourhood, in a country where two thirds of the population are illiterate.
A large turnout is expected from 4.2 million Guineans called to choose a president from among 24 civilian candidates, including one woman, at 8,261 polling stations around the country.
The three frontrunners are former prime ministers Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Toure, and a former opposition leader, Alpha Conde.
Guinea has been led by a transition government for the past six months, headed by General Sekouba Konate, the architect of a coup following the death of long-time President Lansana Conte, another military leader, in 2008.
The junta was however headed by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, whose failed promises for change, and to step aside for a civilian government, led to the protest rally at which the bloody stadium killings took place in September 2009.
Konate warned candidates on the eve of the vote that the country was standing "before the judgement of history."
"None of us should do anything, or say anything, which will add to our already long list of martyrs. It is tomorrow that Guinea will either advance, or recede forever," he said.
Konate has fulfilled a promise that no soldier or member of the transition junta would run for president.
All that remains after the election is for him to respect his commitment to hand over power to a civilian leader after 25 years of military rule.
Guinea\’s "father of independence" turned president-for-life Ahmed Sekou Toure ruled repressively for 26 years and his sudden death in 1984 was quickly followed by a coup which led to 24 years of military rule by General Conte.
The country\’s first electoral campaign was marked by passionate debate and festive street demonstrations.
While otherwise peaceful it was marred last week when supporters from two political parties clashed in a town 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Conakry, resulting in at least one death.
According to the national electoral commission (CENI) there are 3,965 local and foreign observers deployed.
Guinea\’s borders were officially closed on Sunday, no planes allowed to take off and cars banned from the streets, except for those of diplomats, the defence and security forces and those with special authorisation.
Under orders from the security ministry all land, sea and air borders were to be closed between 6:00 am and midnight, state television reported.
In another first, soldiers will vote in civilian clothes outside of the barracks.
Some 120,000 Guineans will vote in 17 foreign countries.
The first provisional results will not be known until Wednesday. The announcement of final results is expected within eight days. The date of a possible second round is scheduled for July 18.