Doubts growing about Sunday election in Guinea, with many voting cards yet to arrive

By Rukmini Callimachi, AP
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Doubts growing about Sunday election in Guinea

CONAKRY, Guinea — Only days before Guinea’s historic presidential runoff election, hundreds of thousands of voting cards have not yet arrived and the trucks needed to transport materials to distant villages are still idling at a warehouse in the capital.

The man initially tasked with overseeing Sunday’s vote also has died in Paris, where he had been rushed for treatment, a family friend said Tuesday.

The confluence of disorder and bad luck means this weekend’s long-awaited vote will most likely be delayed again, a move that is sure to escalate tension in this West African nation. Over the weekend, street brawls between supporters of rival political parties left one dead and 54 wounded.

“It is highly improbable that the election will be held this Sunday,” said Boubacar Diallo, the commission’s director of planning. “It is a purely technical problem.”

On Monday, Guinea’s prime minister declined to directly answer whether the election would in fact be delayed. However, he added: “We will not hold an election if this will end in a fistfight.”

Many have hoped that the upcoming vote will mark a turning point for the troubled, mineral-rich nation that has known only authoritarian rule since winning independence from France in 1958. The first round of voting in June was met with excitement, but the multiple delays since then have cast a pall over the runoff.

Leading presidential contender Cellou Dalein Diallo accuses the government of purposely delaying the vote in order to give the No. 2 finisher Alpha Conde a chance to catch up in the polls.

Guinea-based election expert Elizabeth Cote of the International Foundation for Election Systems says that political squabbles inside the commission have distracted the body from getting ready for the historic vote. Those disputes include arguments over who should have replaced the ailing head of the commission, Ben Sekou Sylla, whose death was announced Tuesday.

Guinea had multiple elections during the 24-year rule of autocrat Lansana Conte, but because the polls were openly rigged until his death two years ago no one gave much thought to the mechanics of the vote, Cote said.

It was only after the first round of the current presidential race in June that election authorities realized the flaws in the system, including the fact that there were not enough polling stations.

Between June and September, the commission spent weeks mapping more than 1,600 new polling centers, a time-consuming process that meant that other tasks fell by the wayside, Cote said.

For example, the envelopes in which voters must place their ballots were supposed to be printed in Sweden. Diallo says they have not yet been ordered because the financing fell through. His staff is due to meet this week with another vendor in neighboring Senegal, but even if they agree on a price, he says it is unlikely the envelopes will be ready in time for Sunday.

Voting cards for roughly one-tenth of the electorate are also still with a printer in South Africa, he said.

And even if the trucks carrying voting materials were to leave Guinea’s capital first thing Tuesday, they most likely will not reach the rain-soaked interior of the country in time for Sunday’s vote, where major towns are several days by road and some remote polling stations can only be reached on foot.

Meanwhile, campaigning has remained suspended following the weekend pre-election violence.

At party headquarters, Cellou Dalein Diallo’s supporters spent Monday in plastic lawn chairs planning what they would do if the election was again delayed. Diallo got 44 percent of the vote during the first round, and his supporters are convinced that he will win the election in a landslide against Conde, who got only 18 percent.

“If (Prime Minister) Jean-Marie Dore tries to delay the election one more time, he won’t be able to sleep anywhere in Guinea,” said Ibrahima Balde, 39, as the group of young men surrounding him erupted in applause.

Associated Press Writer Boubacar Diallo contributed to this report.

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