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Guinea-Bissau votes in landmark polls

Voters in Guinea-Bissau have cast their votes for a president and parliament. The much-delayed election aims to draw a line under a 2012 military coup that plunged the West African nation into chaos.

Nearly 800,000 people, most going to the polls for the first time, were expected to cast votes on Sunday for one of 13 politicians seeking the presidency, with 15 parties fielding candidates for parliamentary seats.

Preliminary results for the election are not expected until April 16, with a runoff presidential ballot on May 18 also likely.

The election was aiming to usher in new leadership in the impoverished West African nation, which for the past two years has been stagnating under a transitional government backed by the military.

The country's last attempt at an election, in April 2012, was called off when soldiers under army chief Antonio Injai led a coup days before a scheduled presidential run-off. One month later, Injai agreed to hand over power to the transitional government headed by President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo.

One of the frontrunners is the political heavyweight Jose Mario Vaz, the former finance minister and candidate of the dominant African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

His greatest threats have emerged to be the former World Bank executive and Harvard graduate Paulo Gomes and Abel Incada, from the main opposition Party for Social Renewal (PRS).

No elected president has completed a five-year term since a war of independence from Portugal ended in 1976, setting forth a monumental task.

In addition to a floundering economy, the new president and parliament will have to battle the country's thriving drug trade. With weak state institutions and an intricate unpoliced coast of islands and mangrove creeks, South American drug cartels have turned the country into a hub of cocaine trafficking, most of which is then smuggled into Europe.

The money from the drug trade has led to mass corruption in Guinea-Bissau's public institutions, especially the armed forces.

The election,

delayed several times for security reasons

, was supervised by more than 500 international observers.

About 80 percent of the country's 1.6 million people depend on cashew farming - the biggest money earner - with two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line.

hc/mkg (Reuters, AFP)

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