CONAKRY, Guinea — For days now, this tattered seaside capital — the site of a government massacre of civilians just nine months ago — has been giddy with anticipation of the country’s first-ever free elections after more than five decades of dictatorship.
Bands of supporters in their candidates’ T-shirts marched through the rutted streets, motorcades of partisans coursed down the avenues on beaten-up motorbikes and thousands of people crowded highway overpasses to greet presidential candidates noisily as they returned from final campaign trips for Sunday’s vote.
For the first time since this West African nation of 10 million gained independence in 1958, there is no occupant of power to manipulate the vote, and election observers say the military appears to be staying well clear of the electoral process on orders from the taciturn general, Sekouba Konaté, who has been leading the transitional government after deciding to give up control. With that, two generations of grim repression suddenly and unexpectedly gave way to something of a democratic free-for-all.
The candidates, all 24 of them, have been free to hold packed rallies without interference, and the faces of presidential hopefuls now beam from giant billboards all over town. Soldiers, omnipresent in Conakry in the past year, have barely been in evidence in recent days. They have been ordered to stay in their barracks during the voting, a military spokesman said.
“The army is neutral,” the spokesman, Lt. Col. Lancei Condé, said. “We don’t have a candidate.”
Election observers confirm that the transitional government has taken pains not to influence voters. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the leader of the European Union’s electoral observation mission here, said, “There’s a serious determination at the political and administrative level to make this election happen and be a success.”
Analysts say that while the election is likely to go off relatively smoothly, the aftermath may be less trouble-free. “The real cause for worry would be, I expect, six to 18 months later, when it starts becoming clear that the expectations that a well-elected president could fix everything were exaggerated,” Michael McGovern, an anthropologist at Yale University who specializes in Guinea, wrote in an e-mail message.
For now, though, the atmosphere, tense for months after the army massacre of nearly 160 antimilitary demonstrators in the stadium here last September, has lightened considerably.
“We are happy!” youths chanted in a local language, Peul, at a campaign headquarters on Thursday, and a crowd of hundreds outside echoed the sentiment.
“This is the most important moment since independence,” said Thierno Baldé of the Research Institute on Democracy and the Rule of Law in Guinea. “For the first time, people have a choice.”
Mr. Lambsdorff of the European Union echoed that sentiment, saying, “I can sense clear enthusiasm, and I’m confident we’ll see an election day that will take place that would have been unthinkable before.”
He continued, “My impression is that the military stands by the declaration of Ouagadougou,” referring to an agreement earlier this year under which no member of the military or transitional government can run in Sunday’s election.
That agreement itself was the product of a remarkable confluence of events influenced by General Konaté. Along with a junior officer, Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara, he had helped lead a military takeover after the longtime dictator Lansana Conté died in December 2008. Captain Camara, the new leader, veered into increasing eccentricity through 2009, hosting rambling televised improvisations that came to be known here as “The Dadis Show.”
His misrule culminated in the September massacre, which led to international sanctions, isolation and the beginnings of criminal inquiries into regime members. Weeks later, another officer, fearing he was to be blamed for the massacre, shot Captain Camara and seriously wounded him.
General Konaté took over and shepherded the transition to civilian rule, agreeing to the naming of an interim civilian prime minister and an accelerated timetable for the election.
That history helps explain the elation that has overtaken the capital. As election day closed in, knots of supporters stood on street corners, sometimes dancing and singing, and holding aloft pictures of their favorites — occasionally twinned with President Obama. “The first free election — it’s the first time in Guinea,” said Abdoulaye Diallo, a sheet metal worker, standing with one such group. “We’ve suffered too much.”
Intoxicated with the new freedom, people have sometimes gotten carried away; there were injuries on Thursday when supporters of opposing candidates hurled rocks at each other outside Conakry. “The democratic culture is very low,” said Mamadi Kaba of the African Encounter for the Defense of Human Rights, by way of explanation.
The country was under dictators for so long, two of the three leading candidates, Cellou Dalein Diallo, 58, and Sidya Touré, 65, served as prime ministers under Mr. Conté, who ruled for nearly a quarter-century.
Both candidates demonstrated against Captain Camara’s military junta and were beaten during the stadium massacre. Mr. Diallo is of the country’s leading ethnic group, the Peul, which makes up nearly 40 percent of the population, and spent 11 years as a minister.
Mr. Touré, though from a tiny minority, is credited with bringing dependable electricity and water to the capital, for the first and last time, during his tenure as prime minister in the late 1990s.
A third leading contender, Alpha Condé, 72, was a longtime exiled opponent of Mr. Conté, but is thought to be somewhat weakened by the many years he spent in Paris, where he developed tight relations with French officials.
Analysts say two of the three are likely to face off in a July runoff that will be held if no candidate gets more than 50 percent — considered unlikely given the number of candidates. All have promised to work to lift up Guinea, which is mineral rich but underdeveloped and one of the world’s poorest nations, 170th on the United Nations’ 182-nation Human Development Index.
“We’ve got a standard of living that’s lower than before independence,” Mr. Touré said at his home here, in a break from campaigning. “In every town, there’s no electricity, no water, nothing. The peasants are practicing subsistence agriculture.”
Mr. Touré dismissed fears that the military might suddenly get restless and interfere. “The soldier who does this would be suicidal,” he said. “People won’t accept it.”
It may never be totally clear why Guinea’s dynamics appeared to change so quickly. Diplomats give much of the credit to General Konaté, the interim president, whom they describe as an unusual military man — diffident, reserved and uninterested in power, despite his participation in the earlier coup.
In a speech a week ago, he spoke of the “solitude of power” and its “illusions,” quoted the French writer Paul Valéry on the meaning of history, cited Nelson Mandela and said: “Our defense and security forces are in the avant-garde of democracy, which guarantees us more dignity and a better future.”
His actions have made believers of many. “General Konaté really wants to help us move towards democracy,” said Khadiata Touré, leader of the women’s branch of the Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée, Mr. Diallo’s party. “We never thought we would have the luxury of an empty presidential palace. In the past, power has always sustained power.”