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Coup-Prone Guinea Bissau Calm Ahead of Election

Presidential candidate Serifo Nhamadjo rallies voters on the streets of Guinea Bissau's capital during the final day of campaigning ahead of Sunday's presidential elections, Friday, March 16, 2012.
Presidential candidate Serifo Nhamadjo rallies voters on the streets of Guinea Bissau's capital during the final day of campaigning ahead of Sunday's presidential elections, Friday, March 16, 2012.

Guinea Bissau's nine presidential hopefuls are wrapping up what has been a calm campaign season.

Voters say they hope the winner will bring a measure of stability to the tiny country that is better known for political assassinations and military coups.

Musician Ibraima Balde, 26, said candidates have controlled themselves and there has been no violence during the election. Balde predicted there will not be any problems if candidates accept the results, pointing out that late president Malam Bacai Sanha spoke of peace and put in place measures to encourage stability. Balde hopes the next president of Guinea Bissau will continue that way.

The country had 90 days to hold elections after Sanha, who served for only two years, died in office in January from a prolonged illness. Renegade soldiers had murdered his predecessor, long-time President Joao Vieira, in his home, reportedly as revenge for a bomb attack that had killed the chief of the armed forces.

Violence has marked the country's history since it fought for, and ultimately won, independence from Portugal in 1974. Since then, fierce rivalries between military and political leaders have sparked repeated coups and attempted coups, and a civil war in the late 1990s.

No elected president has ever finished his mandate.

As civilian and military leaders have wrestled for dominance, the tiny coastal nation has fallen into ruins. Two-thirds of its inhabitants live in poverty. Government institutions are weak, services nonexistent and corruption runs rampant.

South American drug cartels use the many small islands off the country's lawless Atlantic coast to ferry cocaine and other drugs to Europe. The United Nations estimates that as much as $1 billion-worth of cocaine passes through Guinea Bissau each year.

Promises of peace dominated this year's presidential campaign.

Frontrunner Carlos Gomes Jr. resigned from his post as prime minister to run on the ruling party ticket. During his campaign, he has promised to work toward national reconciliation and unity. Gomes also pledged to improve nutrition, health and employment in the country. And he said, if elected, he will be a mediator between political adversaries.

Gomes is seen as an economic reformer and some praise him for the tough stance he has taken on drug trafficking and army reform. All are attributes that political observers say could prove dangerous for him if he is elected.

His key challenger is Kumba Yala, the former president who was overthrown in a coup in 2003 after three tumultuous years in power. Yala placed second in the 2009 election during which he often appeared on the campaign trail brandishing an axe.

Yala said he will always be available for the people. He promised to promote justice, which Yala said is indispensable in restoring peace and stability. Yala also said he will pay special attention to veterans of the fight for independence and that make sure the voices of the vulnerable are heard.

Yala has strong ties to the military and is seen as playing up ethnic divisions in favor of his Balanta ethnic group, the largest in Guinea Bissau.

Analysts say an unruly, meddling military, combined with inter-communal rifts, make for a volatile mix during and after the election. Voters, however, say they remain optimistic.

Thirty-year-old state employee Seca Joao Saqui points out there has not been any violence so far. And he said he hopes the new president will unify the country because prosperity will not come from division. Everyone, said Saqui, must be working toward development.

The West African regional economic bloc ECOWAS has sent 80 election observers to Guinea Bissau, calling the poll "critical" to the consolidation of peace in Guinea Bissau.

If no one wins a clear majority in Sunday's vote, a date will be set for a run-off between the two top-scoring candidates.