BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau (AP) — Voters cast their ballot Sunday in Guinea-Bissau for a presidential election they hope will bring calm amid a backdrop of continued political tensions and unrest on the streets in the West African country.
No incidents were reported as more than 33,000 polling stations received ballots. The country has more than 760,000 registered voters.
Twelve candidates are running for head of state, including incumbent Jose Mario Vaz, who has been in power since 2014.
He is the first democratically elected president to complete a full term in a country that has seen a number of coups and attempted coups. Vaz is also running against two of the prime ministers he has fired during his five years in office.
“I will respect the verdict of the ballot box,” Vaz said after voting in Bissau, the capital. “Power is not mine. It’s the people’s. The people are sovereign, they decide on their own destiny.”
About 6,500 defense and security forces were dispersed to ensure security during the process, and more than 100 police officers from Togo had also arrived.
“I think I made a choice that will allow the country to change for the good,” said Edinilson Queba Dabo, who didn’t disclose who he had voted for.
Issuf Indjai commended the positivity of the voting Sunday and encouraged others to vote.
“I call on all those who are still at home to come and vote. Only then can we talk about change,” he said.
Prime Minister Aristides Gomes warned, however, that the election won’t resolve Guinea-Bissau’s problems “like a magic wand.”
He said the new head of state would need to “help stabilize” the country’s recent tumultuous history.
Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony of around 1.5 million people, is one of the world’s poorest countries. It has been plagued by political instability, poverty, corruption and drug trafficking, especially cocaine. The most recent military coup was in 2012.
The candidates’ agendas include promises to fight the cocaine smuggling that has used Guinea-Bissau as a staging post between Latin America and Europe, prompting the United Nations to describe the country as a “narco state.”
Candidates have also pledged to ensure political and governmental stability, create an effective public health and education system, and make a diplomatic push to restore the country’s international image.
If no candidate captures more than 50% of Sunday’s vote, a runoff ballot is to be held between the two top candidates on Dec. 29.
Last month, one person died and three others were injured when police used tear gas to break up an unauthorized street march organized by opposition parties.
In a power struggle barely three weeks before the election, Vaz, the incumbent, fired Gomes, the prime minister, and his Cabinet, who were elected last March.
Vaz replaced Gomes with Faustino Fudut Imbali, but Gomes refused to leave office, saying the order to leave was invalid because Vaz’s term legally ended on June 23.
The attempt to remove Gomes prompted an international outcry and appeals for stability from the United Nations, the European Union and the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States, with observers warning of a threat of civil war.
The West African bloc, ECOWAS, called the move by the president illegal and threatened sanctions. Imbali then resigned.
Vaz’s strongest rival is former prime minister Domingos Simoes Pereira, who Vaz fired in 2015. That move led to years of tension between the head of state and parliament.
Vaz again refused to name Pereira as prime minister in June this year.
ECOWAS stationed 600 troops in Guinea-Bissau in 2012 to discourage armed uprisings. It wanted to increase the contingent to 2,000 this month for the election, but the country’s powerful military disallowed it.
Guinea-Bissau became independent from Portugal in 1974, but it has struggled to get any momentum in its economic growth. Most people farm for a living.
After the turn of the century, Latin American drug gangs used the country as a depot for the trafficking of cocaine into Europe by air and sea. The gangs became so influential that they unsettled local politics.
The drug trade has become less obvious since international law enforcement bodies joined a crackdown and made large seizures.
Associated Press writers Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, Vagner Barbosa in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, and Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal, contributed to this report.