Presidential elections set for 21 December

Presidential elections in Guinea, in which the the head of state, Lansana Conte will seek another seven-year term despite failing health, will take place on 21 December, the government has announced.

State radio and television said on Tuesday that Conte had signed a decree setting the date for the poll.

Conte, 69, flew to Cuba last week for a private visit, apparently to seek medical treatment. Diplomats say the former army colonel who seized power in a 1984 coup, suffers from diabetes and heart problems which sometimes make it difficult for him to walk.

Opposition parties have not yet decided whether to contest the election in the light of the government's refusal to set up an independent electoral commission and allow them free access to the state media.

They expressed surprise that Conte had chosen to set a date for the poll before negotiations on the conditions under which it will be held had been concluded

"This is illegal. We are still in the process of dialogue and now they've gone ahead and fixed a date for the election," Jean Marie Dore, a spokesman for the Republican Front for Democratic Change (FRAD), a coalition of six opposition parties, told IRIN.

The fragmented opposition suffered its latest setback on Tuesday when FRAD's request to broadcast a statement on state radio was rejected by the Information Minister, Mamadi Conde.

Government sources told IRIN the statement contained allegations that the election had already been fixed to ensure that Conte won 85 percent of the vote.

Dore said the denial of airtime to FRAD was the clearest signal yet to Guineans and the international community that the government had never been interested in a genuine dialogue with the opposition.

"They were only pretending to be in dialogue with us," Dore said. But he declined to say whether the opposition would boycott the elections. "We need to consult ourselves and analyse this new situation, before we decide our next step. [But] Conte will not be president again this time," Dore said

Conte was nominated unopposed as the presidential candidate of his ruling Party for Unity and Progress (PUP) last month, but warned in his acceptance speech that he would not take any active part in the election campaign.

Only one strong opposition candidate has so far emerged to challenge Conte, who has ruled this former French colony with an iron hand for 19 years.

Last Saturday, former prime minister Sidya Toure, was nominated as the presidential candidate of his Union of Republican Forces (UFR) party. Many Guineans fondly remember the relative prosperity they enjoyed when Toure was prime minister and finance minister between 1996 and 1999.

However, in his acceptance speech, the former economist hinted that the opposition would only contest the election if it was given firm guarantees that it would be free and fair.

"We in the opposition, as a united front, are bent on ensuring that we have maximum transparency, that our voices be recognised, that we have the necessary observers in place and an electoral commission of a calibre that we continue to struggle for," Toure said.

Diplomats say that even if Conte is re-elected, his health is now so fragile that it is unlikely he would be able to serve the full seven-year presidential term.