Ghana awaits new president in test of democracy
* Main rivals in near-deadlock, results expected soon
* Ghana cited as model democracy in Africa's "coup belt"
* Stakes increased by rising oil output
By Kwasi Kpodo and Richard Valdmanis
ACCRA, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Ghanaians waited anxiously on Sunday for results to a leadership election that was fraught with technical problems, but which officials hope will still burnish the country's reputation as a pillar of African democracy.
A leading local news outlet that was compiling results credited incumbent John Dramani Mahama with victory on Sunday, contradicting claims from the party of his top rival, Nana Akufo-Addo.
"I'm not so interested in hearing it from them. I want to hear it from the electoral commission," said Godwin Gone, a 42 year-old electrical engineer in the sprawling capital Accra. "I hope they will speak soon."
The poll is seen as a test of whether Ghana can maintain 30 years of stability and progress in a region better known for coups, civil wars and corruption.
An oil-driven economic boom has brought more wealth to Ghana but also fears that it could suffer the corruption and instability that often plagues energy-rich developing nations.
A cliff-hanger election in 2008, in which Akufo-Addo lost by less than 1 percent, pushed Ghana to the brink of chaos, with initial disputes over results driving hundreds of people into the streets with clubs and machetes.
"Peace cannot be taken for granted. So we are all working towards it," said Miranda Greenstreet, co-chairman of the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, which deployed around 4,000 monitors for the vote.
Voting was plagued by delays after hundreds of newly-introduced electronic fingerprint readers - used to identify voters - failed on Friday and forced some polling stations to reopen on Saturday to clear the backlog.
But the problems were met calmly by the rival parties and ordinary Ghanaians, calming worries of the kind of street violence still common during elections in West Africa.
"This election has been hard, but we must remember Ghanaians are one and we must love each other and remain peaceful," said Wellington Dadzie, 69, a former soldier who lives on the outskirts of the capital Accra.
Late on Saturday, the General Secretary of Akufo-Addo's party said he had seen figures showing Akufo-Addo had won the vote with 51 percent - a statement immediately criticised by Mahama's party as "reckless and provocative".
A spokesman for Ghana's election commission was not available Sunday morning, but officials said results are widely expected later Sunday or on Monday. A run-off is possible Dec. 28 if no candidate wins an outright majority.
Ghanaians are also choosing a new parliament, in which Mahama's National Democratic Party enjoyed a small majority.
Mahama was the vice president to John Atta Mills and replaced him as president in July after he died of an illness.
He has vowed to use the growing oil wealth to boost incomes and jumpstart development in a country where the average person lives on $4 a day.
Oil production in Ghana - which is also a big cocoa and gold producer - started two years ago and oil field operator Tullow Oil says it expects to boost output further in 2013.
Akufo-Addo, a British-trained lawyer and son of a former president, has criticised the ruling party for the slow pace of job creation and has promised to provide free primary and secondary school education.
But in a country where campaign messages rarely influence voting choices, many believe most of the 14 million voters will cast their ballots based on ethnic, social or regional ties.
Ghana has had five peaceful and constitutional transfers of power since its last coup in 1981, in stark contrast to the turmoil that surrounds it in the region.
Neighbouring Ivory Coast tipped into civil war last year after a disputed 2010 poll and regional neighbours Mali and Guinea-Bissau have both suffered coups this year.
"These elections are important not just to Ghana but for the growing number of states and actors seeking to benefit from increasing confidence in Africa," said Alex Vines, Africa Research Director at Chatham House.