Conakry — As the latest target date for Guinea's overdue legislative election approaches, Guineans are waiting for the government to declare a new schedule. Observers say a poll is unlikely before March 2008.
The election - most recently set for December 2007 - is just one part of a political transition underway since unprecedented civilian uprisings early this year brought in a new government and gave citizens a sense that they can play a role in how the country goes forward.
"There may be more interest [in the upcoming elections] because of the events of this year, as people feel like they do have some influence on their future," a Western diplomat told IRIN.
While the government has not officially postponed the election, some members have talked of a delay and Prime Minister Lansana Kouyate recently acknowledged that given the work remaining to organise the poll, holding it in December would be "difficult". International observers in Guinea agree that much remains to be done to prepare, including getting the independent electoral commission up and running.
Current members of parliament came to power in a disputed election in 2002 and their mandate was officially up in June. President Lansana Conte's Party of Unity and Progress holds 85 of the 114 seats.
Speaking before the National Assembly on 11 October, Kouyate pledged that the election "will be - as the Guinean people want it to be - free, independent, credible and transparent."
Union leaders, who spearheaded the unprecedented nationwide strikes in January and February, say a credible, transparent legislative election is crucial to Guinea's political recovery after decades of governance marked by corruption and incompetence. And across the country they are urging people to participate.
"We must absolutely tell people how important it is to get out and vote in the legislative election so we can have a creditable parliament," Rabiatou Serah Diallo, head of the National Confederation of Workers (CNTG), told IRIN in her office in the capital, Conakry.
Mobilising the people
Observers say for now the unions have far more impact in bringing people into the political process than the opposition parties, which are seen as weak.
This is partly due to Guinea's political history, according to Bakary Fofana, director of the Centre of International Commerce and Development and a consultant with the US-based democracy development organisation IFES. Years into Conte's essentially one-party rule, people increasingly became cynical of and detached from the government and thereby detached from politics, and opposition parties did not step up and fill the void, Fofana said.
"Unfortunately the opposition did not know how to come up with a suitable strategy to respond," he told IRIN. "They were also under a lot of constraints; they were unable to move about and assemble as they wished. As a result they could not mobilise supporters." That is where civil society and the unions have stepped in, he said.
The union-led strike early this year turned into nationwide demonstrations that paralysed the country for weeks.
The Western diplomat said, "In a way the events of [earlier this year] only underlined the relative weakness of the opposition political parties because they haven't been able to mobilise people and the trade unions [have]."
The CNTG's Diallo agreed. "The public does not have much confidence in the political parties. Nowadays, even for the slightest problem, people turn to the unions. They think that their solution is with the unions, nowhere else."
Some in the opposition, meanwhile, lack confidence in the government. "[We] believe that the delay in the electoral process is due to a lack of will on the part of the government," Mohamed Diané, administrative secretary for the main opposition party, Rally of the Guinean People (RPG), told IRIN. "We are in a state of uncertainty."
Still, opposition parties for now are on board to participate in the upcoming poll. The RPG boycotted the 2002 legislative election.
While Guineans might be taking a keener interest in the process, observers say, elections are not the top priority for the average person. "Ordinary Guineans are not clamouring for democracy," the Western diplomat said. "Ordinary Guineans are clamouring for water and electricity and lower prices."
Water, electricity and lower prices were top among Prime Minister Kouyate's promises when he came into office in March in the wake of the demonstrations, in which civilians demanded better living conditions and the ouster of President Conte.
Kouyate's government has made some strides in providing basic services and in some economic reforms, and many observers praise a new wave of openness and transparency. One example, observers say, is the regular publication of cabinet meeting proceedings by the government information minister. This was not the case in the past, when people did not even know when cabinet meetings took place much less their contents, one observer told IRIN.
Still, since naming the new prime minister Conte has constantly reminded that he holds the reins in Guinea and he is seen as blocking Kouyate on many fronts. "The president knows how to slow things down," one observer said. "He won't do things that he doesn't want to."
Conte has failed to sign off on a number of bills, including one to launch an inquiry into civilian deaths at the hands of military forces in 2006 and 2007.
These days Guinea is awash in rumours that Conte is ready to sack the prime minister. Recently representatives of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, paid a visit to union leaders to probe the latest rumour - that Conte was prepared to push Kouyate out and the union leaders had given their approval.
New, old faces
One of the changes Kouyate is pushing for but the president has yet to approve is an overhaul of the government. With the new government that came on in March, ministers changed, but secretaries general, chiefs of staff and other top officials remain the same.
Under Guinean law these posts can be changed only by presidential decree.
In meetings with the new government, the diplomat said, "The ministers are new, but all the civil servants behind them are the same faces that have been there before." He added, "Some of them might be slowing down change because they don't want to change. Some of them might not be capable of working in the way the new ministers want."
Analysts in and outside Guinea say the forces against change - those who have benefited from Conte's long monopoly on power - are strong, but it is not clear how much power they will ultimately have.
The CNTG's Diallo said, "Guinea is full of people who are pitting one against the other to ensure that change never takes place."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]