CONAKRY, Guinea — Voters waited in long lines and a special security force patrolled in all-terrain vehicles on Saturday as polls opened in Guinea for hotly contested legislative elections that have sparked fears of violence in the West African nation.
Saturday's vote, delayed several times and already marred by deadly pre-election protests over how it will be conducted, is intended to complete a rocky transition to democracy that began with the election of President Alpha Conde in 2010.
In the capital, Conakry, polling stations in both pro-government and pro-opposition neighborhoods appeared to have opened on time and without incident at 7 a.m.
"Finally, a day to vote for a new legislature. We had to wait too long because of opponents who didn't want this day to come," said Karifa Oulare, who lives in Conakry's pro-government Sig-Madina area.
Guinea suffered under dictatorship and strongman rule until its first democratic presidential election in 2010. Though observers deemed that vote to be largely transparent, it showcased a deep rift between the 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 opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo.
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.
The most recent unrest came earlier this week when 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 Conde's government, further rattling Conakry residents.
Nevertheless, opposition supporters also seemed to have turned out in large numbers on Saturday, although some voiced concerns about the potential for fraud.
"This vote, I am doing it with a bit of bitterness, because it is taking place in a context of widespread fraud," said Mazid Diallo, a resident of the Bambeto neighborhood where election-related demonstrations have turned violent at least twice this month.
As he spoke, officers belonging to a special elections-related security force could be seen patrolling in four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Saturday's vote had been scheduled to take place last 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 killed at least 150 people and saw widespread rapes.
Although charges related to the massacre have recently been brought against suspects including high-ranking military officers, Human Rights Watch on Friday accused the government of lending insufficient support to the investigation.
Many observers expressed concern about the possibility for violence either on voting day or as results came in, though the vote was also not expected to deliver an outright win for either the ruling party or the opposition.
"Effective coalition-building will be vital in the immediate period following the election, given that no single party – including the ruling Rally of the Guinean People – is expected to achieve an overall majority," said Sian Bradley, senior Africa analyst at the risk analysis firm Maplecroft.
Around 5 million voters are registered to pick 114 representatives. Polls were due to close Saturday at 6 p.m.
Associated Press writer Robbie Corey-Boulet contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.