30 September 2013

Guinea's Long-Awaited Parliamentary Elections Pass Peacefully

Photo: African Elections Project (AEP)
A woman casts her ballot (file photo).

After years of delays, Guinea's first legislative elections since the 2008 coup have gone relatively smoothly. But the hardest task of is yet to come.

This Saturday, an estimated five million Guineans cast their ballots to choose a new parliament in the nation's first legislative elections since a 2008 coup.

There were reports of missing voting cards, shortages of indelible ink, and polling stations opening late. Many waited for hours to vote, but amidst high security, proceedings remained calm. The independent national electoral commission (CENI by its French acronym) congratulated Guineans for the peaceful conduct of the process, while the Economic Community of West African States observer mission said they believed the elections "were held in acceptable conditions of freedom and transparency".

This was not a given prior to the vote. A week before the elections, opposition protesters shot dead a trainee policeman as renewed clashes broke out across the city, leaving more than 70 people wounded. And tensions have long been running high between opposition parties vying to control the new 114-strong assembly that will replace the transitional parliament which has been in charge since military rule came to an end in 2010.

Results are expected to be announced shortly, but whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to satisfy everyone.

The rocky road to the elections

The road to these legislative elections has been long and tortuous. According to Guinea's constitution, they should have been held within six months of the 2010 presidential election which brought Alpha Condé to power. But distrust between the government and opposition parties led to repeated stalling. After a series of negotiations failed to end the impasse, it took the intervention of the UN to help set a date.

In the run up to the long-awaited elections, tensions grew. The opposition, led by Cellou Dalein Diallo of the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UDFG), complained of problems with the voters list and claimed the process was being rigged. In particular, Diallo accused President Condé and the electoral commission of inflating the electoral roll with additional voters from the Haute-Guinée province, Condé's stronghold. The ruling party shot back that the opposition's claims were unfounded and amounted to a delaying tactic.

Waymark, the South African company facilitating of the election, stepped in to defend its role insisting that its equipment and processes were foolproof. And the election commission also responded to claims of irregularities by saying, "We are trying our best to work to make the process credible. We need the political parties to trust the work we are doing to achieve greater transparency". In a show of good faith, the country invited the European Union to monitor the election.

A toxic cocktail

The political bickering that has dominated the years leading up to the election is perhaps not surprising. After all, the opposition remains convinced that the 2010 presidential vote was stolen from them when Diallo, who won the first round by a large margin, was surprisingly defeated in the run-off.

However, the tensions around the elections can also be explained in terms of broader dynamics at play in the country.

One of these crucial dynamics is ethnicity. Ethic favouritism and nepotism are rife in Guinea, and the country has witnessed numerous outbreaks of violence attributed to ethnic rivalries over the past few years. For example, the deadly clashes in south-eastern Guinea this July - in which at least 94 but quite possibly many more were killed - were mainly reported to have been along ethnic lines. Christian or animist Guerze community, the dominant group in the southeast, are believed to have fought with Konianke, who are mainly Muslim and come from further north but have settled in the region.

However, interestingly, the Guinean finance ministry also directed the blame for the unrest on the country's economic situation. Indeed, the dismal state of public services in the ramshackle capital of Conakry with its constant power blackouts and potholed roads makes people angry, while Guinea has to deal with a bulging youth population facing meagre job prospects.

Guinea's combination of poor governance, ethnic division and a faltering economy is a toxic cocktail.

The future of Guinean democracy

While it positive that the legislative elections were held peacefully in the face of all these problems, this fact in of itself ought not to be overstated. Despite vast potential for mineral exploitation, Guinea remains one of the poorest countries in the region and the potential for tensions to boil over remains high.

Meanwhile, even if the post-election period remains peaceful, it will take time to rebuild trust amongst international investors. For example, Rio Tinto, which owns part of the concession to exploit Simandou (one of the largest iron ore deposits in the world), has already pushed back its start date for production to late 2018. This is bad news for local Guineans eager to benefit from promised jobs.

The economic future of the country thus now depends on the government, whatever its make-up after results are announced, to demonstrate that Guinea is a secure destination for long-term investments. The future of Guinea's democracy will largely be determined by the newly elected crop of leaders and their relationship to President Condé, but all politicians will need to show their citizens that they can overcome their infighting and work for a common vision for all Guineans.

Katharina Neureiter holds an MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics specialising in African colonial history and war cultures. She is currently working as a consultant in East Africa and blogs at hearabout.wordpress.com.

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