Guinea-Bissau went to the polls peacefully on Sunday to choose a new parliament, but the National Electoral Commission ordered voting to continue on Monday in the capital Bissau after a third of the city’s polling stations failed to open.
Officials contacted by telephone said voting got under way on time in the interior of this small West African country and there was a heavy turnout.
However, poor organisation led to a late start to voting at many polling stations in the run down capital Bissau, which is home to nearly a third of the country’s 1.3 million population.
Electoral officials were forced to keep voters waiting for several hours until ballot boxes and voting slips were distributed.
Higino Cardoso, the chairman of the National Electoral Commission, said in a radio broadcast that those polling stations which opened late would remain open after the official closing time of 1700 GMT until everyone who wanted to vote had been able to do so, even though an electricity cut meant that voting would have to take place by torch and candle light.
Those polling stations which had failed to open at all on Sunday, would open on Monday instead, he added.
Reporters touring the city said about one third of all polling stations in Bissau had remained closed all day.
Political leaders called on the population of this poverty-stricken former Portuguese colony to remain calm and patient.
General Verissimo Seabra Correia, who led a bloodless coup to depose former president Kumba Yala in September, interim president Henrique Rosa and the leaders of the main political parties all took to the air waves to appeal to voters to stay calm and make Guinea-Bissau’s return to constitutional rule a success.
The parliamentary election was paid for by foreign donors anxious to prevent Guinea-Bissau slipping back into chaos after a brief but bitter civil war from 1998 to 1999.
It is due to be followed by a presidential ballot in 12 months’ time which will complete the country’s return to civilian rule.
No opinion polls have been published, but diplomats and other political analysts expected five political groupings to win most of the 102 seats in Guinea-Bissau’s unicameral parliament.
The African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau (PAIGC), a former armed liberation movement, which ruled the country from independence in 1973 until its removal from power in internationally supervised elections in 1999. The party of former presidents Luis Cabral and Bernadino Vieira is now led by Carlos Gomes.
The Social Renovation Party (PRS) of disgraced former president Yala who defeated the PAIGC in elections for years ago. The PRS is now led by Artur Sanha, the prime minister of Guinea-Bissau’s broad-based transitional government.
The United Social Democrat Party (PUSD) of Francisco Fadul, who served as interim prime minister between the end of the civil war and the holding of the 1999/2000 elections.
The United Platform Coalition led by veteran opposition leader Helder Vaz.
The Electoral Union Coalition, led by Joaquim Balde, who currently serves as spokesman for the transitional government.
All the main political parties have promised to revive health and education services which virtually collapsed during Yala’s chaotic three-year rule.
The former president came to power with a landslide majority after promising to work for national reconciliation. But he soon fell out with most of his close collaborators. He sacked three prime ministers in quick succession and dissolved parliament but failed to hold fresh elections. He also left civil servants unpaid for several months before his removal from power.
Yala, a former philosophy teacher, has been banned from taking an active role in politics for the next five years.
However, he turned out quietly to vote on Sunday at the same polling station as President Rosa, a respected businessman who was named head of state by the army to lead Guinea-Bissau back to constitutional rule.
At some polling stations in the capital queues of several hundred people formed before dawn. When it became evident that voting would be delayed, many voters simply marked their place in the queue with a stone and went home with the intention of returning later.
The election is being monitored by just over 100 international observers from the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, La Francophonie and bilateral donors such as Portugal, Russia and the United States.
Many Guineans see the poll as a last chance to put their country on the road back to normality after three decades of economic decline and political disintegration.
The international community, which is trying desperately to restore peace to nearby Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, is meanwhile anxious that Guinea-Bissau should not become a fresh source of instability in the turbulent West African region.