Voters in Guinea-Bissau on Sunday chose between nine presidential candidates in the small, coup-prone nation, and citizens said they hoped the winner would finally bring stability and much-needed development after years of turmoil.
The vote closely follows the death of President Malam Bacai Sanha, who was only elected in 2009 in an emergency election following the assassination of longtime President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira. The newly elected Sanha spent the better part of his term shuttling between hospitals to treat a mysterious illness. He died in January, prompting the current election.
Five of the nine candidates ran in 2009, giving the election a sense of deja vu.
"Really it's the same thing all over again," said Ousmane Bah, a 35-year-old mason, as he waited to vote at a school in Bissau. "We're going through the same steps. There's no real change."
Former prime minister Carlos Gomes Jr., the race's front-runner, said: "If I am elected, I will serve the people of Guinea-Bissau."
Besides numerous coups, this former Portuguese colony has been destabilized by a booming drug trade. Cocaine is smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean from South America in boats and planes which dock on Guinea-Bissau's archipelago of virgin islands. The drugs are carried north to Europe by boat as well as by drug mules, who ingest the cocaine before boarding commercial flights.
Experts believe the traffickers have bought off key members of the government, especially the military, in order to provide them safe passage. In 2010, the U.S. Department of the Treasury declared two high-ranking officers as drug kingpins, freezing any assets they might have had in the United States.
"We want to give people hope who have lost hope, and intensify the combat against corruption and against the drug traffickers," said Arthur Sagna, deputy campaign manager for candidate Kumba Yala, a former president who was overthrown in a 2003 coup.
With Guinea-Bissau often described as a failed state and with coups so prevalent, many seemed relieved to simply be able to vote in Sunday's election. After Sanha's death on Jan. 9, there were worries that the military might seize power.
"The vote is proceeding well," said diplomat Marcello Antonio Santos, 54, who works at the ministry of foreign affairs as he waited to vote on Sunday. "There have been no disturbances. It's a very good thing for our democracy."