By David Lewis and Saliou Samb
CONAKRY (Reuters) - Parliamentary elections in Guinea on Saturday officially cap the mineral-rich West African country's return to civilian rule after a 2008 coup, but many fear that the vote could reignite violence that killed dozens of people earlier this year.
The contest, two years overdue, is ostensibly for the 114 seats to Guinea's National Assembly, but with no single party expected to command an outright majority, political deal-making is sure to follow.
And in a country where the president holds the real power, the parliamentary poll is widely seen as a warm-up to the 2015 vote when incumbent Alpha Conde's five-year mandate ends.
"They are all playing for the first round of 2015," said a Conakry-based diplomat. "How do the presidential dividends weigh up against the frustrations of the first few years?"
During decades of misrule, Guinea's vast wealth of bauxite, iron ore, gold and diamonds has failed to translate into prosperity and progress for the country of 11.5 million people.
When Conde won the 2010 presidential race following two years of chaotic military rule, many were optimistic for change.
It coincided with planned multi-billion-dollar investments in projects by mining firms like Rio Tinto and Vale, who want to tap into vast iron ore reserves.
But subsequent political instability caused by sometimes deadly protests over preparations for the weekend election, coupled with a collapse in metals prices and Guinea reviewing mining deals, have led to progress stalling and investor interest cooling.
"Virtually nothing has changed. In politics, they just say things to make people vote for you," said Alpha Ba, a resident in the rubbish-strewn, potholed seaside capital of Conakry.
"If we have a National Assembly, may be more people will have confidence. You know, foreign people don't come to countries where there is instability," he added.
Saturday's vote pits a coalition based on Conde's RPG party against an opposition alliance centred around Cello Dalein Diallo, leader of the UFDG party, who Conde edged out in the 2010 presidential runoff.
The RPG's yellow banners and flags dominate the capital and posters adorned with pictures of gleaming new hotels and dams under construction proclaim "Guinea is moving forward."
Damatang Albert Camara, spokesman for Conde's government, said tensions in the capital aside, many Guineans were for the first time enjoying paved roads, solar panels and support for farming. "These are tangible results," he added.
Conde's camp argues it has had to balance delivering quick fixes with pushing through the deep reforms needed in a country crippled by a chronically weak administration.
Under Conde, Guinea's debt has been cut by nearly $2 billion and inflation is expected to fall to single digits, according to the IMF. Despite a contraction in mining, economic growth is forecast at 4.5 percent in 2013 and 5.2 percent in 2014.
A successful vote would also free up 140 million euros in EU aid.
However, groups of Diallo supporters lean out of the windows of taxis chanting "Three years ... nothing" in a city of glaring inequality that is hobbled by power cuts.
Opposition leaders say the lack of results and investor concerns highlight Conde's inability to adapt from veteran opposition leader in exile to president of a fractious nation.
"Given this government has worked so badly, we believe this will be a vote to punish it," said Sidya Toure, an opposition leader.
In the immediate run up to the election, campaigning had been largely peaceful. However, protests over preparations for the vote killed dozens in May, while some 100 more people died in separate ethnic clashes in July in the volatile southeastern Forest region.
Conde draws heavily on the ethnic Malinke population for his support base while Diallo is seen as the Peul candidate.
Unemployed young people make up the bulk of those campaigning on behalf of the parties, and Security Minister Madifing Diane conceded on Wednesday that Guineans would be voting amid deep tensions.
But he declined to comment on French media reports quoting French and U.S. intelligence flagging an imminent coup, other than to say that the authorities had been aware of the issue for months.
However, he did tell a press conference that protests were being engineered from outside the country.
"Guinea is in danger, but the strings are being pulled abroad," he said, without giving any further details.
After months of wrangling, the opposition last weekend accepted a four-day delay in the vote to allow time to fix errors to election registers and the positioning of polling stations which they complained had favoured Conde.
"But we will not accept it if the conditions on voting day are not right," opposition leader Toure said. The opposition has long accused the election commission of favouring Conde.
Africa Practice, a UK-based consulting firm, forecast that Conde's RPG would secure 45 seats, Diallo's UFDG 42 seats, while Toure's UFR would win 9 seats.
The remaining 18 seats, it predicted, would be won by other parties, and post-election coalition building would determine the make-up for the future parliament.
Opposition parties say their presence in parliament will bring checks and balances and therefore improved governance. Conde's camp, meanwhile, fears this will translate into them blocking progress ahead of the 2015 presidential vote.
"Although power will remain firmly with the executive president, an elected parliament will formalise the opposition's role and give its activities a platform. This in turn will ease political tensions," said Trent Baldacchino, Africa Risk Consulting's West Africa analyst.
Baldacchino said this would reduce Guinea's international political and business risk profile, possibly unlocking financing for mine infrastructure and exploration and enabling miners to plan for the long-term despite the downturn.
- Politics & Government