Voting begins in Mozambique

MAPUTO: Voting on Wednesday started in Mozambique's fourth democratic elections, with the ruling party set to sail to victory over an opposition bruised by a recent split and years of election losses.

President Armando Guebuza was among the first people to cast his vote, shortly after polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).

"I call on all Mozambicans to participate on this important day for our republic and to do it in a spirit of celebration," Guebuza told reporters after casting his vote in central Maputo.

Seventeen parties and two coalitions are competing for nearly 10 million registered voters in polls tipped to be swept by Guebuza and his Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo).

Opposition ballots are likely to be divided between the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) and its breakaway Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM), paving the way for Frelimo to cement its rule since independence from Portugal in 1975.

Long queues started forming outside stations about an hour before the polls opened, with the electoral administration hoping for a smooth voting process.

"Conditions are in place for a calm and orderly vote," said Felisberto Naife, head of the election administration authority, prior to the start of the country's fourth democratic polls.

The presidential race pits Guebuza, a millionaire businessman who is seeking a second and final term, against Renamo's Afonso Dhlakama, a fourth-time presidential hopeful, and the youthful MDM founder Daviz Simango.

Simango, a former Renamo member who is mayor of Mozambique's second city Beira, turned heads when he broke with the flagging party to establish the rival MDM, with only six months to prepare its campaign.

In the parliamentary race, Frelimo seeks to defend its 160 seats in Mozambique's 250-seat Assembly of the Republic.

The emergence of the MDM has raised the possibility of a third party winning seats in parliament for the first time since 1994, when Mozambique held its first democratic elections.

The elections were part of a peace agreement that ended a 16-year civil war between Renamo and Frelimo's Marxist-Leninist regime.

But the MDM is running in just four of Mozambique's 13 parliamentary districts, the result of a controversial decision by the national elections commission to exclude it and 13 smaller parties on the grounds of incomplete candidate registration documents.

Only Frelimo and Renamo were approved to run in every district.

Early results are expected late Wednesday with the deadline for official results on November 12.

Despite economic growth averaging eight percent per year for a decade following the war, Mozambique remains one of the world's poorest countries, with 90 percent of its people living on less than two dollars a day.