* Voting extended in race considered too close to call
* Ghana cited as model democracy in Africa’s “coup belt”
* Stakes increased by rising oil output
By Richard Valdmanis and Kwasi Kpodo
ACCRA, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Exhausted Ghanaians queued up for a second day to cast their ballots in presidential and parliamentary elections on Saturday after technical hitches forced authorities to extend voting in some areas.
The decision was broadly accepted by Ghanaians who hope the poll will burnish their country’s reputation as a bulwark of democracy and progress in a region better known for civil wars, coups and corruption.
“I was happy they extended the time,” said Yaw Krampah, a 29-year-old metal worker, as he waited in line on the outskirts of the capital Accra. “But I couldn’t sleep at all - this election means so much to me.”
Three decades of peace combined with a recent oil-driven economic boom have made Ghana a darling among international investors who say its growth prospects contrast sharply with the economic woes of Europe and the United States.
President John Dramani Mahama, who replaced the late John Atta Mills after his death in July, faces main rival Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), who has vowed to provide free education and root out graft.
Opinion polls point to a tight race, raising the prospect of a repeat of the near-deadlock of the 2008 elections, in which Mills defeated Akufo-Addo in a run-off with a margin of less than 1 percent.
Technical problems plagued this election. Many newly-introduced electronic fingerprint readers, used to verify people’s identities, malfunctioned on Friday, slowing voting and creating long lines at polling stations nationwide that could not be cleared.
A spokesman for the main opposition party said the glitches had affected hundreds of thousands of people. The electoral commission declined to give a number but said polling stations would reopen if needed and counting would begin anywhere voting was finished.
Results are expected by Monday, with a second round possible at the end of December if no one wins an outright majority. Ghanaians are also electing a parliament, where Mahama’s National Democratic Congress (NDC) has enjoyed a slim majority.
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.
Akufo-Addo, a trained lawyer and son of a former Ghanaian president, has criticised the ruling party for not creating jobs and easing poverty fast enough, and says he would use oil money to pay for free primary and secondary education.
Mahama, meanwhile, says he aims to boost Ghana’s per capita annual income to $2,300 by 2017 - double that in 2009.
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. Mahama comes from Ghana’s northern region while Akufo-Addo is from the east.