The people of Guinea-Bissau went to the polls on Sunday and the question on everyone’s mind is whether this tiny West African nation, known as a transit hub for cocaine traffic, will finally find stability through democratic elections.
The presidential and parliamentary vote opens almost exactly two years to the day after the last coup, which short-circuited elections between two rounds of voting. The 2012 putsch hardly came as a surprise in the former Portuguese colony — no leader in Guinea Bissau’s 40 years of independence has finished his time in office.
But on Sunday and in the weeks and months that follow Guinea-Bissau will try to defy it tumultuous history and achieve stability. Voters flocked to polling stations throughout the country during the day. The streets of the capital were largely empty except for security forces and some journalists as people generally did their duty and then went home.
Sunday’s voting was going relatively smoothly and polls are expected to close at 1700 GMT. Results are expected within a week, and if no candidate wins a majority of the votes, there will be a runoff.
“These elections will mark a definitive turning of the page in the history of the country,” Leonel Pedro Biague, a construction worker in the capital, said in the days before the vote. “I’m convinced that these elections won’t be like those of the past.”
Big challenges remain, however. Perhaps the most difficult will be righting the faltering economy, which is built on cashews, foreign aid and the illegal cocaine business. Cashew exports have plummeted, and, after the coup, some international organisations pulled back aid, which accounts for half of the country’s gross domestic product in the best of years.
Still, there’s reason for hope these elections will bring change, according to Vincent Foucher of the International Crisis Group, including immense pressure for a successful vote from the international community, which wields significant leverage because of the country’s dependence on foreign aid.
A recent International Crisis Group report also noted that a new generation of politicians, more open to compromise, may make a difference. Among the front-runners for the presidency is Paulo Gomes, a Harvard-educated, former World Bank economist who is running as an independent and is making a mark despite not having a party machine. Even the powerful PAIGC party, whose candidate was on track to win the last elections, prompting the coup, has chosen someone who appears less threatening to the military establishment, Jose Mario Vaz, a former finance minister.
That’s important in a country where the military has not been shy about seizing power to maintain the status quo.
It was in the days before the 2012 runoff that the military arrested the Prime Minister who was then the leading presidential candidate. Shortly after, the junta agreed to hand power to a caretaker president, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, who has led the nation of 1.7 million since then.
What comes after the elections is thorny — jumpstarting the economy, reforming the military, and stemming the flow of South American cocaine passing through the country’s numerous uninhabited islands for destinations in Europe and the United States.
The new government’s approach to the drug trade is especially important for its standing in the international community and that involves taking on the military. The head of the country’s armed forces is in under federal indictment in the United States for conspiring to sell missiles to Colombian rebels, storing their cocaine and conspiring to send cocaine to the U.S.
Still, the crisis group’s Mr. Foucher says this time could be different. For one, public opinion is beginning to turn against the armed forces, and they may just be ready to accept the compromises and reforms being pushed by the international community.
“I hope that my country can be like others. So I have come to fulfil my civil duty,” said Sergio da Silva, as he visited a polling station on Sunday.