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Guinea-Bissau Prepares For Sunday Presidential Election

Street scene in Bissau
Voters in Guinea-Bissau are hoping Sunday's presidential election will help the former Portuguese colony end decades of political unrest. There has been some last minute haggling over electoral lists.

Political banners and decorations in the colors of Guinea-Bissau's rival political parties deck the streets of the capital, Bissau, for the country's first presidential election since a military coup toppled former President Kumba Yalla in 2003.

Now a candidate, Mr. Yalla sparked fears last month that the polls might not even take place, when he declared that he remained Guinea-Bissau's legitimate leader, and new elections were not needed. But, many now hope Sunday's vote will go forward without any problems.

The United Nations special representative at the election, former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano, helped diffuse tensions last month. He says, nothing now stands in the way of a successful vote.

"The United Nations has taken all the [dispositional] changes necessary in order to create an atmosphere conducive to free and fair elections in Guinea-Bissau, but above all, peaceful elections," president Chissano said.

Earlier this week, the head of Mr. Yalla's party, Artur Sanha, raised questions about the compilation of voter lists.

He says his party noticed irregularities in the lists. And, he said, there was not time to lodge official protests and fix the problems. Mr. Sanha denies accusations that he is simply making excuses, in case Mr. Yalla loses at the polls.

But electoral commission President Alhagie Malam Mane says he is confident that the body has succeeded in its preparations.

He says, he wants to make sure that all those holding voter cards are able to vote. He says he also wants to ensure that all polling stations open on time, which will be seven in the morning local time.

A total of 17 candidates are standing in the election. Three former rulers are considered front-runners. They include, in addition to Mr. Yalla, Joao Bernardo Nino Vieira, who was ousted in 1998 after 18 years in power, and his interim successor, Malam Bacai Sanha.

Journalist Allen Yoro Mballow says, no matter who the eventual winner is, Guinea-Bissau must demonstrate it is capable of holding fair elections, not only to its own people, but also to potential aid donors.

"The stability of the country relies on these fair and transparent elections," he said. "And also, Guinea-Bissau has a moral compromise with the international community. Because most of the help depends on these elections."

Mr. Mballow says he is optimistic. If the voting itself turns out to be anything like the campaign period, he says, he is confident the process will remain peaceful.

"It was a carnival of democracy," he said. "And they showed it yesterday, when people saw different political parties' militants passing through, one to another, without violence."

Guinea-Bissau has been plagued by civil war, military coups, and intermittent uprisings for much of its history, since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974.