ACCRA Ghanaians choose on Friday who will run one of Africa's most stable democracies as a surge in oil revenues promises to boost development and economic growth.
Ghana has earned a reputation as an oasis of stability and progress in West Africa, a part of the world better known for civil wars, coups, entrenched poverty and corruption.
"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.
Incumbent leader John Dramani Mahama - who replaced the late John Atta Mills after his death from an illness in July - will face main opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), and six others.
Opinion polls point to a tight race between the two main candidates, raising the prospect of a repeat of the near deadlock in 2008 elections, in which Mills defeated Akufo-Addo with a margin of less than one percent.
"We know it will be close, but the important thing is that Ghanaians will accept the results," said John Mark, a shuttle bus driver in the sprawling capital Accra. "We must preserve our peace," he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama has called Ghana a "model of democracy in Africa" for stepping back from the brink during the tight 2008 polls, when other countries in the region might have tipped into conflict.
Ivory Coast erupted into civil war last year after disputed elections in 2010, and other regional neighbors Mali and Guinea Bissau have been thrown into chaos by military coups.
"In all this, let us remember that Ghana is bigger and more important than any of us," Mahama said late on Thursday in a radio address ahead of the poll. "The surest way to sustain and enhance our enviable image is to go to the polls tomorrow in an atmosphere of peace," he said.
The stakes are high this time around with rivals jousting for a chance to oversee a boom in oil revenues that has brought hopes of increased development in a country where the average person still makes less than $4 a day.
U.K.-based Tullow Oil, which operates Ghana's only producing field, says it expects output to rise to 120,000 barrels per day in 2013 from between 60,000 and 90,000 bpd this year, while more big deposits have been found.
Ghana, also a major cocoa and gold producer, is expected to keep up growth of about 8 percent next year and is increasingly cited by investment bankers and fund managers as a growth gem, in contrast to the woes of Europe and the United States.
Across the capital Accra, evidence of the resource wealth abounds - brightly-lit multi-storey buildings, cranes looming over new construction sites, well-paved roads, and billboards advertising banks, cars, and mobile phones.
But many Ghanaians remain out in the cold. An influx of people from rural parts of the country, hoping for jobs in the capital, has yielded a sprawl of outlying shanty towns and many homeless on the city's streets.
Akufo-Addo, a trained lawyer and son of a former Ghanaian president has criticized the ruling party for the slow pace of job creation and fighting poverty, and says he would use the expected uptick in oil wealth to pay for free primary and secondary education.
Mahama, meanwhile, says his party's investments in infrastructure will bring increased prosperity over time. He said he aims to put Ghana on the path to a per capita annual income of $2,300 by 2017 - double that in 2009.
But in a country where campaign messages rarely influence voting choices, many believe more than half of the 14 million voters will cast their ballot based on ethnic and social affiliation, or regionalism.
Mahama is from the north, where he finds his strongest support, and Akufo-Addo, well-liked by fellow Ashanti people and favored in Ghana's second-city Kumasi, is from the east.
On Friday, voters will also elect 275 legislators.
There are 45 more seats in parliament than during the 2008 election, in which Mahama's National Democratic Congress (NDC) won a small majority.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Louise Ireland)