11 April 2014

Guinea Bissau: Voters Finally Go to the Polls in Guinea-Bissau

Photo: RFI
Former president Kumba Yala.

In no other African state has an election been postponed so often as in Guinea-Bissau. People have been waiting for a legitimate government since a coup in 2012. Now the long wait is over.

Jose Mario Vaz, Paulo Gomes, Nuno Nabiam and Abel Incada are the front-runners in Sunday's long awaited elections in Guinea-Bissau. Until recently, their names were known only to a well informed minority. Current interim president Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo is not running.

This means that for the first time since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1991, there is no political heavyweight running for the presidency of the country of 1.7 million people.

One noticeable absentee is former prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior. His government was toppled in a military coup in 2012. At the time, he had just won the first round of a presidential election and was regarded as the favorite for the second round which then never took place. Since then, the country has been run by an interim government. An intervention force of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ensures a certain level of stability.

But the military under Chief of Staff General Antonio Indjai still wields considerable influence. This discouraged the former prime minister from returning from exile in Portugal. While still in power, he had been planning, with help from Angola, to reform the military.

'Jobs have priority'

The absence of prominent candidates has resulted in splits within the country's two main political camps. Two candidates come from the former independence movement, now the country's largest political party, PAIGC. The party's official candidate is Jose Mario Vaz. He was finance minister until the 2012 coup.

"We will win the parliamentary and presidential elections," Jomav, as his supporters call him, declared confidently. He sees the top prioritites as "strengthening the economy, creating jobs and finally getting the economy back on its feet." Jose Mario Vaz is hoping to reap dividends from the positive record of the pre-coup government which boasted a robust economy. It also paid state employees' salaries regularly. Since the coup, Guinea-Bissau has been in a recession. However Vaz faces accusations of having misappropriated financial aid while in office. He says such charges are politically motivated and, as yet, has not been summoned to answer them in a court of law.

Paolo Gomes is also a member of the PAIGC but is running as an independent candidate. He describes himself as a technocrat who, although he has never played an active role in politics, has the advantage of knowing his country's economy really well."

Gomes studied at Harvard University in the US and has worked with the World Bank and the African Development Bank. His campaign message has been that international experience is very important for a head of state if he wants to open doors and market his country abroad.

PRS - one party, four candidates

For the country's other traditional political camp, the Party of Social Renewal (PRS), no fewer than four candidates have entered the race. Official candidate Abel Incada is not expected to do particularly well. Observers say Nuno Nabiam is the strongest of the four - not least because he had the support of the late President Kumba Iala.

Nabiam is the candidate closest to the military and their chief of staff Antonio Indjai. Most members of the armed forces come from the Balanta ethnic group, which makes up about one third of the population. Traditionally, they vote for the PRS. Asked by DW whether a reform of the military and its leadership was necessary, Nabiam answered evasively. "If there is real need for reform, this must first be discussed thoroughly."

A peaceful campaign - but the country is a powder keg

Campaigning has been largely peaceful. International observers from the African Union, from East Timor and New Zealand will monitor the vote counting. While the first round of voting will determine the composition of parliament, none of the 13 presidential candidates is expected to win the absolute majority needed for victory. The two front runners will battle it out in a runoff.

Despite the apparent calm, Guinea-Bissau is a powder keg that could explode at any time, as numerous coup attempts and political murders in recent years demonstrate. Much of the responsibility for the instability lies with the military who are unwilling to bow to government control and have so far resisted all attempts at reform.

"The country needs a variety of reforms, including a reform of the armed forces," Portuguese political scientist Elisabete Azevedo-Harman told DW .

"But jobs must also be created. The economy is on its knees. That makes Guinea-Bissau an easy target for criminal forces such as drug traders." Guinea-Bissau is regarded as the hub for Latin American drug dealers on the route from South America to Europe.

The next president will have his hands full, that is clear. A major challenge will be to remain in office for the full four year term, something not one of Guinea-Bissau's 10 presidents has achieved since independence from Portugal in 1974.

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