The 28 September legislative election in Guinea was peaceful. In the capital, Conakry, turnout seemed significant. Long queues formed outside polling stations, sometimes as early as 6 a.m.
Faced with organisational difficulties and poor resources, members of polling stations and party representatives had serious discussions, sometimes engaging in careful discussions of the electoral law. In the cities more so than in the countryside, particularly in Conakry, national and international observers, election experts and journalists reported on the many problems that arose during voting day, and this helped defuse potential disputes. In the evening, one could palpably sense feelings of pride and relief.
However, more than a week later, the official results have yet to be entirely published. Tension is rising amid explicit accusations of fraud levelled by the opposition. Minor incidents have occurred, in Fria for example. Security is being tightened in Conakry. Shopkeepers are closing their shops and evacuating their merchandise. In the cities, people are reportedly getting weapons to defend themselves in case of violence.
For its part, the regime has expressed fears a coup could be orchestrated by a combination of opponents, military officers and mining interests. According to human rights activists, over the past few weeks civilians, military officers and foreigners have been arrested in Conakry, transferred and interrogated in Kankan and Kassa. Some have since been released. What is at stake is no longer merely the credibility of the electoral process, it is peace and stability altogether.
Guinea last held legislative elections in 2002. The legislative polls scheduled for 2007 did not occur because the country experienced a series of crises that ended with President Alpha Condé's December 2010 election. But this election was marred by controversy over electoral arrangements. This has plunged Guinea into an election quagmire, as we explained in our latest February 2013 report on Guinea. It took almost three years, marked by demonstrations and violence, to achieve a basic working agreement on the legislative election. This election is therefore a crucial step for a country still damaged by five decades of authoritarianism.
However, the results, which the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was initially supposed to publish on 2 October were only announced gradually. More worrying still, alternative means to release local results - private radio stations and civil society organisations - have been suspended or have remained silent, which seems to be partly due to pressure from the government. On 30 September, opposition leaders announced that, based on their own tally, they have won Conakry's five districts and will not accept any other result. On 3 October, they announced their representatives' withdrawal from the national tally commission. The next day, they asked for the cancellation of the polls, adding that all legal means of protest were on the table.
Since then, several local election results in favour of the opposition have been published, including in some highly disputed districts in Conakry. However, results in Kaloum, the historic heart of the capital, where the presidential palace is located, are yet to be released. Saïd Djinnit, the UN Secretary-General's special representative, who facilitated pre-election negotiations, has arrived in Conakry and consultations have started. Despite the opposition's participation, it remains suspicious and has not withdrawn its request to cancel the polls.
It is true that many problems were reported along the way, including underage citizens registered on the voter rolls and uneven or insufficient distribution of electoral material. As usual, short-term observer missions (Economic Community of West African States, African Union, Francophonie) said these glitches do not significantly call into question the credibility of the polls. However, the 30 September preliminary communiqué of the European Union mission, which was deployed long before the vote and strengthened by the EU's significant role in electoral assistance and negotiations, was much more cautious.
Unofficially, many international election experts consider that fragile institutions do not account for all the problems and doubt that the government, the INEC leadership and local authorities have all acted in good faith. Shortly before the election, a high-level official from President Condé's party seemed certain his party would win; he told Crisis Group, “in the regions [outside of Conakry], the préfets and sous-préfets are kings”.
It did not take comments by European observers for the opposition to believe that the government, which it accuses of controlling the electoral system, has orchestrated the technical glitches. The opposition claims its support base has carefully been eroded and its supporters have been deterred from registering on the voter rolls and participating in the vote. It also suspects the government intends to use procedural problems to cancel the results at polling stations in which the opposition received a high number of votes. What is more, the opposition claims direct fraud has taken place during and after the voting, including replacement of ballot boxes and creation of parallel polling stations.
How can the elections in Guinea be salvaged, once again? How can violence be prevented?
There is a real risk of violence. In Guinea, ethnicity is a significant factor influencing voters and ethnic communities all have a strong sense of victimhood. Restoring trust in the electoral system is crucial to defusing intercommunal tensions. Given ethnic-communal resentments and a long tradition of military rule, renewed turmoil could lead to a political catastrophe.
In Guinea, unfortunately, law and procedures have not led to an independent framework for resolving disputes. There has not been any meaningful agreement on the rules of the game prior to the polls; rather, the election was the outcome of a drawn-out process marred by protests and violence that killed dozens (most of them opposition supporters) and prompted strong international involvement. Indeed, the election was held following intense international pressure from France, the U.S., the European Union and the UN. They did not offer to certify and sanction the electoral process, as they had done in Côte d'Ivoire, but they promised certain electoral reforms would be carried out, including enhanced guarantees for transparency. These commitments have hardly been implemented, as the EU mission has noted.
In the short term, in order to defuse the tension, it is crucial, as suggested by the EU mission, that the INEC immediately publish the results of the 12,000 polling stations, starting with disputed areas.
Centralised results for each constituency are not available, which means the opposition has access only to unofficial, local results. There are various sources that can help clarify the situation, such as private radio stations and civil society organisations. Copies of the reports could be handed over to political parties and results displayed. It is necessary that each voter be convinced at least that his or her voice has been heard and that the results reflect the actual votes in each polling station.
In the medium term, in order to resolve disputes, national and international actors should not rely solely on the INEC, which the opposition considers biased, or on the electoral justice system, whose role was highly controversial in 2010. The electoral commission should work closely with the international facilitation team and the follow-up committee, in which the main actors and international partners are represented. It is these two entities currently - and unfortunately - that underpin the electoral process, and they should serve as the basis for establishing clear dispute resolution mechanisms. It is no longer acceptable to invalidate hundreds of thousands of votes for mere procedural reasons, as happened in 2010. If it appears impossible to reach widely accepted results in particular constituencies, the voting could be held again.
It is crucial to offer adequate, long-term answers to Guinea's people: quick fixes, as in 2010, will make the 2015 presidential election - which is the real focus of attention - all the more troubled and risky. There is still time to ensure the 2013 legislative elections are a step forward in strengthening electoral institutions rather than yet another crisis.
Vincent Foucher is West Africa Senior Analyst for International Crisis Group.