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Voters head to polls in Guinea-Bissau

By Tomas Faye

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 18 2012 4:15 a.m. MDT

Presidential candidate and former prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior speaks at a rally on the final day of electoral campaigning, in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, Friday, March 16, 2012. Residents of the small West African nation prepared to vote Sunday only two years after an emergency election brought President Malam Bacai Sanha to power following the murder of the former leader. Sanha, whose short presidency was marked with frequent hospital stays, died in January.

Gabriela Barnuevo, Associated Press

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau — For the second time in two years, voters in Guinea-Bissau headed to the polls Sunday to choose a president for their small, coup-prone nation, hoping that this time their leader will bring stability and much-needed development.

In 2009, Guinea-Bissau held an emergency election following the assassination of longtime President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira. Newly elected leader Malam Bacai Sanha spent the better part of his term shuttling between hospitals to treat a mysterious illness. He died in January, prompting the current election.

Sunday's race has nine candidates, five of whom ran in the 2009 election, 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."

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 drug mules, who ingest the cocaine before boarding commercial flights, as well as by boat.

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."

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