WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
Because hundreds of thousands of voters hope that the election will end four years of political in-fighting that almost paralyzed governance and undermined counter-drug trafficking efforts. The presence of ECOWAS troops in the country and ECOWAS use of sanctions also very likely prevented Guinea Bissau’s military from exploiting the political gridlock to seize power.
Voters in Guinea Bissau, which has been wracked by political crisis since 2015, will have the opportunity to end the political gridlock today by selecting among 12 candidates, who will lead the country as president.
The presidential election is most likely a referendum on President Jose Mario Vaz, president since 24 June 2014, and first president in the history of the country to complete a presidential term. It is also likely a referendum on the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which has dominated politically since independence in 1974, and with whom Vaz has feuded for political control.
The country’s election agency says it registered more than 760,000 voters and expect turnout to be as high or even surpass the 85 percent turnout recorded during the legislative elections earlier in the year.
Since assuming power in June 2014, Vaz has feuded with the PAIGC on whose platform he contested and won the presidential contest in 2014, firing his prime minister, Domingos Simoes Pereira, in 2015 and triggering political turmoil, which has cascaded over the years and paralyzed governance. Vaz has fired several other prime ministers, worsening the political crisis and necessitating the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to intervene.
In the latest iteration of the crisis, Vaz fired Aristides Gomes, the prime minisiter appointed following mediation by ECOWAS only weeks to the presidential election, undermining an agreement reached among the feuding parties for Vaz, whose tenure expired before an election to determine his successor, to not play a direct role in governance. Vaz appointed Faustino Fudut Imbali to replace Gomes, who refused to step down and was backed by ECOWAS.
ECOWAS threatened sanctions if Vaz did not revert his decision to fire Gomes or if Imbali and his government did not resign. Imbali handed in his resignation on 7 November, which deflected the rising political tensions and allowed the election to proceed as scheduled.
Over the course of its post-independence history, Guinea Bissau has been embroiled in political crisis, which has produced one presidential assassination and led to at least four undemocratic leadership changes and another 16 attempted military coups.
According to a analyst, who closely follows Guinea Bissau’s politics, “since the last military coup in 2012, Guinea Bissau appears to have matured politically, despite challenges to political governance.” According to him “the military, which has been one of the most meddlesome in Africa’s history, has deliberately and studiously remained outside of the political fray, with repeated assurances from the military’s leadership that it will not intervene or take sides in the crisis.”
While this is a good sign, also likely due to the presence of ECOWAS forces in the country to maintain stability, the inability of the political elite to resolve their differences in a timely manner, jeopardized political governance and threatened stability. The crisis undermined efforts to shore the economy, which is largely dependent on cashew nut exports, and to improve counter-drug trafficking measures in the country.
For many years, Guinea Bissau gained notoriety as the only narco-state in Africa, because of the ease with which drugs passed through the country, enabled by senior military and government officials, into Europe.
Vaz, who has been expelled from the PAIGC and is now running as an independent candidate, is being challenged by 11 other candidates, including Pereira whose sacking in 2015 triggered the political crisis. Pereira is the PAIGC flag bearer.
Carlos Gomes Junior, the prime minister that was overthrown in a military coup in 2012 and went into exile in Portugal, is also a strong contender as an independent. But the expectation is that Pereira, who will leverage the PAIGC’s enormous political resources, is Vaz’s main political nemesis.
Despite the tension and localized pockets of violence during the campaign season, the election is not likely to be violent. Even if pockets of violence breaks out, the combined presence of ECOWAS forces and own troops will likely mitigate the violence, preventing it from becoming widespread.
President Vaz has promised to respect the decision of the electorate and is satisfied that during his tenure, the military did not interrupt governance, making him the first president in the country to complete his tenure.