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ACCRA (Reuters) - Ghanaians voted on Friday in elections that will test 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 progress in West Africa, a part of the world still better known for civil wars, coups, entrenched poverty and corruption.
Long lines of people clutching their voter cards waited outside polling stations in the seaside capital Accra. Some brought plastic chairs and bottles of local porridge.
Michael Akpabli, 61, who used a walker because of a fractured hip, said he came early because the issues at stake were so important.
"I am voting for peace, unity and development. I am voting for someone who will be able to translate our dreams into reality," he said.
President John Dramani Mahama - who replaced the late John Atta Mills after his death from an illness in July - faces the main opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo, of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), and six others.
Voters will also elect a new parliament. Mahama's National Democratic Congress (NDC) had a slim majority in the outgoing one.
Opinion polls point to a tight presidential race, 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 after a run-off. A second round will be held in three weeks if nobody gets a majority of the vote on Friday.
Despite fears of trouble after the 2008 vote, Ghana pulled back from the brink. That was in marked contrast to the civil war after a disputed election in next door Ivory Coast in 2010. Other regional neighbors Mali and Guinea-Bissau have been thrown into chaos by coups.
"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.
Voting at a polling station in Accra's Nima district, where Akufo-Addo grew up, started with prayers for peace.
"We are proud of Ghana and hope that whoever wins will win without complications," said Haruni Safiyu, a 26-year-old laborer moments before casting his ballot.
In a radio address late on Thursday, Mahama urged Ghanaians to remain peaceful. "In all this, let us remember that Ghana is bigger and more important than any of us," he said.
The stakes are high with rivals competing 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.
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 have been left out. 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 oil money 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.
Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Matthew Tostevin