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Guinea Presidential Vote Underway Without Opposition Participation - 2003-12-21

A presidential election is taking place in Guinea, where an ailing, long-serving president faces a little-known challenger following a boycott by other opposition leaders.

Voting is taking place in more than 8,000 polling centers. While the election is underway, borders with neighboring countries are closed and inter-city traffic is blocked.

Nearly five million registered voters can choose between President Lansana Conte or challenger Mamadou Bhoye Barry.

Turnout has been heavy in the strongholds of the president but very light elsewhere following a call by main opposition leaders for voters to abstain as a way of protest. Main opposition leaders say it is a disgrace for Guinea that Mr. Conte is running again.

The 69-year-old general has been in power since a military coup in 1984. He is a chain-smoker, who suffers from acute diabetes and can barely walk.

Two years ago he changed the constitution so that he could run for a third elected term. Ruling party officials have campaigned on a platform that only they can insure stability and keep Guinea from spiraling into civil war like its neighbors Sierra Leone, Liberia and, more recently, Ivory Coast.

Mr. Conte himself appeared at just one campaign rally on December 1.

His opponent is a 50-year-old expert in solar energy. He has been accused by opposition parties of being on Mr. Conte's payroll and running for election to give an air of authenticity to the vote.

Just two foreign observers are monitoring the election, both from Ivory Coast. Final results are expected Monday.