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Coup-prone cocaine hub Guinea-Bissau elects new leader

By Coumba Sylla

BISSAU (AFP) - Guinea-Bissau voted Sunday for a new president in a key test for the coup-prone west African state, which must prove its stability to attract vital development aid.

Turnout was picking up after a slow start, the national elections commission said, with no incidents reported from early voting in the former Portuguese colony where chronic instability has fed a booming cocaine trade.

"The country needs peace and quiet," retired electrician Jaime Antonio Lopes said at a polling station in the crumbling seaside capital Bissau.

Walking slowly and with difficulty, the 64-year-old said: "I am sick and the country must be peaceful so I can get care."

A mutiny by renegade soldiers in April 2010 prompted the European Union and the United States to suspend crucial monetary support for badly needed reforms to the country's bloated and powerful army.

Although the three-week election campaign was peaceful, some fear violence or military intervention if the army does not approve of the winning candidate.

The army, which has a bigger budget than health or education, has been in constant, often deadly competition with the state.

Guinea-Bissau's instability has been such that no president since independence in 1974 has completed a full term in office.

Three have been overthrown by coups, and one was assassinated in office in 2009. Sunday's election comes after the last president, Malam Bacai Sanha, died in January following a long illness.

Nine candidates are in the running, including Carlos Gomes Junior, 62, who stepped down as prime minister to run for the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (APIGCV).

"My victory is certain," he said with a confidence echoed by most of the candidates, of whom he and three others are considered front-runners.

Vincent Foucher of the International Crisis Group based in Dakar said the international community sees Gomes as "the least worst" candidate.

Also in the fray is former president Kumba Yala, 59, whose 2000-03 regime was marked by instability, and who was overthrown in a coup.

Independent Henrique Rosa, 66, who was transition president in 2004-05 and scored 24 percent in the last election, is also running as is lawmaker Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, a breakaway candidate from the ruling party.

A proponent of military reform, Gomes has been unpopular with the military and was briefly kidnapped by the current army chief during the 2010 mutiny.

Oil-rich Angola is believed to have played a powerful role in smoothing tensions in the country, where it has scores of troops stationed -- angering some in the military who feel Gomes is cultivating a personal security force, Foucher said.

The impoverished country, which survives mostly off exporting cashew nuts and fishing, is also working on a big bauxite mining project which could boost the economy.

A dysfunctional state, with a porous coastline and an archipelago where hidden airstrips can be set up, has also provided fertile ground for Latin American drug lords looking for a hub to ship their cocaine to Europe.

The United States in 2010 labeled the country's air force and naval chiefs "drug kingpins," and the trafficking is said to involve leaders of the country's highest institutions.

The elections commission announced Saturday that 593,000 had registered to vote, an unexplained increase from a previous figure of 579,000. Polls close at 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) and the election commission has not said when results will be known.

If the vote goes to a second round it will take place between April 22 and 29.