Guinea Bissau: Who Will Be Guinea-Bissau's President in the New Year?

Domingos Simoes Pereira, left, and Umaro Sissoco Embalo are due to face off in a presidential runoff vote on December 29.
26 December 2019

Two ex-prime ministers are vying for the presidency in a runoff vote set for Sunday. Who is going to win is unclear, but whatever the outcome, Bissau-Guinea are expecting change to follow.

Big banners hang from buildings of the capital Bissau and supporters have for days been sporting t-shirts with the image of their preferred candidate. It is the political knockout round of the presidential election: On December 29, the winner will be decided between the last standing candidates, Domingos Simoes Pereira and Umaro Sissoco Embalo. "Domingos has no chance," Embalo told DW. But who is going to win remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that Bissau-Guineans are expecting change to follow.

Pereira and Embalo are competing for a heavily fought over position. The West African country has seen 20 coup attempts since independence in 1973. Four of those, most recently in 2012, have been successful. Outgoing president Jose Mario Vaz is the first president in 25 years to finish his mandate without being killed or ousted in a military coup.

'Military is holding back'

"The situation is tense but mostly calm," Jens Herpolsheimer, a researcher on African politics at the University of Leipzig told DW. "The military is holding back, also due to the African Union, ECOWAS and the UN who said, they might lift the sanctions they put on those involved in the coup of 2012." Herpolsheimer, however, expects the election to go smoothly.

After being kicked out in the first round, Vaz declared his support for Embalo. Embalo, often referred to as Sissoco (his maternal family name), is a businessman and former general who is running for the Movement for a Democratic Alternative (Madem), an opposition party formed by 14 MPs after splitting from the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

National unity

Embalo, the opposition figure came second in last month's polls taking 27.65% of the vote, while Pereira garnered 40% of the vote. But support for Embalo is rising as a fair amount of opposition candidates have endorsed him. "I take all candidates with me,"Embalo told DW. "I run a humble campaign, I don't want to sell the country." Defeated candidates Nuno Gomes Nabiam and Carlos Domingos Gomes both endorsed Embalo. "Bissau-Guineans simply want change. I embody the new way for Guinea-Bissau," Embalo said. "I was in the PAIGC before Pereira even went into politics. We learned in the PAIGC that change is necessary. Guinea-Bissau needs change. I am a man of hope who can bring national unity to this country. I am the only one who can do that."

According to Herpolsheimer, Senegal's President Macky Sall, who has a strong influence on the politics in Guinea-Bissau, is supporting Embalo. But the support will not necessarily amount to a victory. "There are internal disagreements. In the Party for Social Renewal which supports Embalo, a group of rich and very influential people openly confirmed their support for Pereira."

A turban and a Panama hat

Pereira and Embalo are quite different characters, explains Vincent Foucher, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. "If you want to tell them apart, just look at their hats: Pereira wears this Panama hat, a symbol of modernity, with a sense of vanity. Sissoco wears a turban, representing himself as a man of the rural population. It is a man of the people versus a man of the elite." Pereira came first clearly in the first round; however, Foucher believes that the elections will be "fairly tight."

Embalo's opponent is Pereira, who won the first round of polls with a clear majority of 40.13%. He is the candidate of the traditional ruling PAIGC, which roots in a movement that fought the Portuguese rule until independence. Like Embalo, Pereira served as prime minister. Though he was sacked by President Vaz in 2015, he retained his political influence as the current chair of the PAIGC.

No 'devastation'

"Pereira kept the party together and defied the president and the Madem who wanted to get him out of PAIGC," Herpolsheimer explained. "In this way, he earned some sympathy points and is positioning himself as a man of the people. President Alpha Conde of Guinea and a number of ECOWAS states, including Ghana and Ivory Coast are supporting him. Even the European Union would have an interest in him winning, though they are officially taking a neutral stand."

Pereira is presenting himself as a man of unity for a torn country. "That is the most important goal," he told DW. "I promise the citizens that I am not going to cause devastation. Not even to be better than others. We have to overcome our differences of race, religion, language or region, and see ourselves as Bissau-Guineans. And we have to focus on internal and international cooperation."

Getting back on track

Bissau-Guineans are hoping that these elections will bring change to a country that has been plagued by political instability. State employees often wait months for their salaries, schools remained closed most of the year, and there is practically no modern health care in rural areas. Guinea-Bissau struggles with corruption and ranked 172 out of 180 states on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index in 2018. Especially problematic: the country is used by Latin American drug runners for smuggling cocaine to Europe.

"There is a hope that now we are going to go beyond," says Foucher. "The international cooperation is fairly bad and has kept donors and international actors away. With more stability, more development is possible, more commitment from donors and investors. Everyone hopes for a government that is responsive and pays attention, to improve the public services which are extremely bad."

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