CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — Special security forces patrolled the capital in all-terrain vehicles Saturday as Guineans voted in hotly contested legislative elections that have sparked fears of violence in the West African nation.
Saturday's vote already had been delayed several times and had been marred by deadly pre-election protests over how it was to be conducted. The long-awaited vote is intended to complete a rocky transition to democracy that began with the election of President Alpha Conde in 2010.
But by early afternoon the main opposition leader and the European Union observer mission were citing flaws with the process, even as the government declared the poll to be a success. Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, voting at a polling station near his home in Conakry's Dixinn neighborhood, accused the national electoral commission of organizing "a chaotic election."
"I'm frustrated to note that the commission didn't correct any of the problems it was supposed to fix," Diallo said. "There is no ink in many of the polling stations. We have polling stations that don't have voting materials or election officials. It's a chaotic election and we are going to protest when the time comes."
The head of the European Union's monitoring team, Christian Preda, echoed and elaborated on these concerns in a radio interview. "We have information that at a significant number of voting bureaus there is no indelible ink," Preda said. "In certain regions it is difficult to send in relevant materials, including ballots. And we know some voters are prevented from expressing their will at the ballot box because voting stations are placed several kilometers away."
Many voting stations opened up to one hour late, contributing to "agitation," said Preda. Yero Conde, the spokesman for the electoral commission, acknowledged the reports of irregularities but defended the vote late Saturday, saying: "We are human and only God is perfect."
"We apologize for these errors but what is important today is that people could vote for whom they wanted," he told journalists. Conde estimated that turnout exceeded 80 percent overall. In the capital of Conakry, voting was largely peaceful and long lines of voters turned out in both pro-government and pro-opposition neighborhoods. However, angry voters in the city's Matoto neighborhood ransacked a polling station after election workers failed to show up more than two hours after the scheduled starting time.
Guinea suffered under dictatorship and strongman rule until its first democratic presidential election in 2010. Though observers deemed that vote to be largely transparent, it showcased a deep rift between Guinea's Malinke and Peul ethnic groups, each of which represents about 40 percent of the population. Voters overwhelmingly backed politicians from their own groups — the Malinke supported Conde while the Peul backed Diallo.
Guinea has not had a legislative election since 2002, and repeated delays over the years have been accompanied by periodic violent protests, sometimes resulting in multiple deaths. The most recent unrest came earlier this week when campaign clashes in several areas of Conakry killed a police trainee and wounded 50 people. On Wednesday, a weekly French newspaper reported having seen American and French intelligence documents warning about attempts to destabilize Conde's government, further rattling Conakry residents.
On Saturday, Conde voted under heavy protection from security forces and did not address the media, though he did issue a statement on state television. "With these elections, Guinea is moving forward," he said.
Saturday's vote had originally been scheduled to take place last Tuesday but was pushed back by four days to address concerns raised by the opposition about voter rolls and other issues. It ultimately took place on the four-year anniversary of Guinea's notorious stadium massacre, an episode that killed at least 150 people and saw widespread rapes.
Many observers expressed concern about the possibility for violence either on voting day or as results came in, though the vote was also not expected to deliver an outright win for either the ruling party or the opposition.
"Effective coalition-building will be vital in the immediate period following the election, given that no single party — including the ruling Rally of the Guinean People — is expected to achieve an overall majority," said Sian Bradley, senior Africa analyst at the risk analysis firm Maplecroft.
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.