CONAKRY, Guinea – The optimism and pride that marked Guinea's first democratic election has faded even before the votes are tallied, as early results show the two candidates are in a tight race, prompting both sides to accuse the other of fraud and heightening tension in a nation that has never chosen its leader freely.
At the headquarters of candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo's party, officials were busy crafting legal briefs calling for results to be annulled from provinces where their constituents had not voted in large numbers following riots in which they were targeted.
And inside the air-conditioned office of politician Alpha Conde, party bosses waved a piece of paper they said proved that more than the registered number of voters had cast ballots in a precinct favorable to their opponent.
Partial results released by the country's independent election commission late Wednesday showed that Diallo was leading with 59.6 percent of the vote with 1.6 million ballots counted out of 4.2 million registered voters. The results, however, are expected to change in Conde's favor because precincts known to be his strongholds have not yet been accounted for. International observers fear the candidates will finish neck-and-neck, increasing the possibility of conflict.
The closeness of the vote and the accusatory rhetoric of the two sides mark the beginnings of a dangerous standoff that could spill over into the street — as it did in the months leading up to the vote, when riots immobilized the capital and twice caused the election to be rescheduled.
The most recent outburst of violence followed rumors that street vendors from the Peul ethnic group — the ethnicity of Diallo — had sold poisoned mineral water to Malinke supporters of Conde, a 72-year-old university professor who is Malinke. Violence spread from the streets of Conakry to the towns of Kouroussa and Siguiri, 300 miles to the north, where a Peul businessman was killed, dozens of Peul shops were vandalized and at least 1,800 Peul citizens fled.
International observers have so far noted only minor irregularities that are unlikely to change the outcome of the vote. But because the election is pitting the country's two largest ethnic groups against each other, and because past leaders have overtly favored their ethnicity, any hint of fraud is magnified.
"If people feel that the vote has been twisted, then there will be trouble. Even the slightest indication. Because in the mentality of Guineans, we are used to our votes not being counted and elections being frauded," said youth leader Lama Bangoura, who lives in the Enco-5 neighborhood of the capital where rioting took place.
The country of 10 million on Africa's western fringe has been ruled by the military for the past 26 years and past elections were blatantly rigged. The newfound freedom that was suddenly thrust upon Guinea when the military was finally forced to stand down following an assassination attempt on the head of the military junta last year has been disorienting.
For the first two days after the vote, masses of Malinke youth crowded outside the Matoto mayor's office where results from the Conakry neighborhood — the second largest constituency in the country — were being compiled. A rumor had spread that Diallo's party had attempted to steal the ballots in a red SUV, which the youths had immobilized in the parking lot.
"We plan to stand vigil here until every last vote is counted and we will ourselves escort the car," said 22-year-old Daffe Bangaly. "We are willing to wait here until the year 2020 if we need to."
By Wednesday, the crowd had been pushed back by security forces in bulletproof vests. They draped police tape across the entrance to the decrepit concrete building.
Upstairs around a room strewn with empty coke cans, discarded manilla envelopes and pieces of plastic, Diallo's representative was being accused of obstruction. He refused to sign off on votes from a precinct where the notation on the electoral paperwork was incomplete. He questioned another precinct where the envelope enclosing the paperwork had been opened in his absence. The president of the counting center scolded him, stressing that they needed to hurry up.
"We cannot stay quiet and wait till everything is over to say there were was this and that," said Bah Oury, the vice president of Diallo's party. "It's better to say there are problems, than to say there 'were' problems."