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Anxiety rises ahead of Guinea's legislative vote

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BOUBACAR DIALLO and ROBBIE COREY-BOULET | September 27, 2013 10:27 AM EST | AP

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CONAKRY, Guinea — Worried Guineans are swarming shared-taxi stations and strapping their luggage to the tops of vehicles headed out of the capital, as anxiety rises ahead of Saturday's hotly contested legislative elections that many fear could prompt violence in the streets.

The vote, delayed several times and already marred by deadly protests over how it will be conducted, is intended to complete a rocky transition to democracy that began with Guinea's presidential election in 2010.

Earlier this week, campaign clashes in several areas of Conakry killed a police trainee and wounded 50 people. On Wednesday, a weekly French newspaper reported having seen American and French intelligence documents warning about attempts to destabilize the government of President Alpha Conde, further rattling Conakry residents.

"One minute we're talking about voting cards and the next we're talking about coups. I don't understand," said teacher Ibrahima Sow. "I'm sending my children to the village until this is finished."

Campaigning ended at midnight Thursday. Souleymane Doumbouya, spokesman for Conde's ruling Rally of the Guinean People political party, predicted that it would "pulverize" the opposition. "We are already savoring our victory," he said.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, campaigning in the northwest prefecture of Boke, said he was unbothered by rumors of instability swirling in the capital.

"Alpha Conde invents a permanent conspiracy so that he can blame our party. These are old demons coming back, but they do not weaken us," he said.

Guinea has not had a legislative election since 2002, and repeated delays over the years have been accompanied by periodic violent protests, sometimes resulting in multiple deaths.

Although the 2010 presidential contest was thought to be transparent overall, it showcased a deep divide between the country's Malinke and Peul ethnic groups, each of which represents about 40 percent of the population. Voters overwhelmingly backed politicians from their own groups_the Malinke supported Conde while the Peul backed Diallo.

While the divide is certainly real, as in other African countries it is routinely exploited by Guinean politicians to rally supporters, said Florent Geel, Africa director for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, which closely follows Guinea.

"We do not have the feeling that the ethnic conflict is the main ignition for this situation. It's definitely a tool for the politicians to use," he said, adding that it is "a well-established practice" in Guinea for demonstrators to receive payments from political parties.

Geel said he believed Guinea could start to move past ethnic politics with the election of a legislature, which would grant the Peul legitimate political representation even if the opposition didn't claim a majority of the body's 114 seats.

"For the moment it's so tense because the Peul people, after losing the last election, feel that they've lost out on power. They have the feeling that they are excluded from the political process and from any economic opportunity," Geel said. "So having an opposition return through a legitimate political process could be very useful."

The vote had been scheduled for this past Tuesday but was pushed back by four days to address concerns raised by the opposition about voter rolls and other issues. It is now taking place on the four-year anniversary of Guinea's notorious stadium massacre, an episode that laid bare the country's capacity for political violence.

On Sept. 28, 2009, security forces stormed a Conakry stadium where tens of thousands of opposition supporters had gathered, killing at least 156 people and raping dozens of women. For several years, a panel appointed to investigate the massacre appeared to receive little support from the government, although recently charges have been brought against suspects including high-ranking military officers.

Rights groups have argued that the charges could discourage anyone pondering organizing violence during or after the legislative vote. But not everyone is so optimistic.

"It's not the time for elections. We should've waited until 2015 and coupled this with the presidential vote," said Aliou Barry, president of the National Democracy and Human Rights Observatory. "This election will do nothing but worsen Guinea's political crisis."

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Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal.