Elections Give Guinea-Bissau a Chance to Emerge From Turmoil

Elections Give Guinea-Bissau a Chance to Emerge From Turmoil
Photo: Civic education officials visit communities to explain voting procedures ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections, April 13, 2014 ( photo by UNDP Guinea Bissau).
For the first time since a military coup in 2012, Guinea-Bissau held presidential and parliamentary elections on April 13, setting the stage for the country’s return to civilian rule. With over 700,000 registered voters, 13 presidential candidates, 15 parties running for parliament and a history of chronic political instability, the elections could have been a recipe for more turmoil. But these fears proved unfounded, as on April 23 Guinea-Bissau’s National Elections Commission announced the final results of the parliamentary poll and the first-round results of the presidential election; more importantly, none of the country’s political forces disputed the results. The perception of the elections as transparent was also reinforced by foreign election monitoring teams from the African Union (AU), the Portuguese Speaking Countries Community, the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States. Another important aspect of these elections was turnout, which was the highest ever recorded in the Guinea-Bissau’s history, notwithstanding the difficulties faced in voter registration. In the parliamentary elections, turnout was 85 percent, while the presidential election registered a 91 percent turnout. In the parliamentary voting, the PAIGC, a left-wing party considered the main political force in the country, won 57 out of 102 seats. The Party for Social Renewal (PRS), a center-left party mainly supported by the Balanta ethnic group, emerged as the main opposition party, with 41 members of parliament. The second-round presidential run-off, scheduled for May 18, will be held between the top two first-round candidates, Jose Mario Vaz, supported by the PAIGC, and Nuno Nabian, supported by former president and PRS founder Kumba Yala. The most substantial differences in their political programs lie in the reforms called for in the military sector. While Mario Vaz envisions reforms to prevent military interference in political affairs, Nabian believes that any modification in the military leadership should be “carefully analyzed.” But that might not constitute a source of political friction, as, according to a Portuguese newspaper, Mario Vaz has privately promised to keep the military leadership in the hands of the Balanta, the main ethnic group in the armed forces. The elections come at a particularly sensitive moment for Guinea-Bissau. The country has one of the poorest economies in the world, and its sluggish social and economic development ended abruptly with an April 2012 military coup and a simultaneous decrease in the world price of cashew nuts, the country’s main agricultural export. Guinea-Bissau’s other economic problems include its large external debt and its high dependence on international donors. Although the economy showed some signs of recovery in 2013 and enjoys positive prospects for 2014, Guinea-Bissau still faces other significant challenges. In 2013, the nongovernmental organization Transparency International ranked Guinea-Bissau as one of most corrupt countries in the world, mostly due to drug trafficking networks that use the country to link South American producers to European consumers. The 2012 military coup had contributed to this problem, as the reported amount of drugs trafficked through the country increased in the wake of the coup. As leading members of Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces have been accused of being involved in the trafficking, the government’s ability to control this security problem is questionable. Finally, there is the less debated issue of ethnic rivalries. Guinea-Bissau’s population includes 11 different ethnic groups among whom the Balanta are the most numerous, representing 27 percent of the population. Ethnicity was never a major issue in Guinea-Bissau until 1999, when Kumba Yala decided to promote several armed forces officials from the Balanta, his own ethnic group; the group now constitutes 80 percent of the country’s military personnel. Some analysts believe that one of the main factors motivating the 2012 military coup was the government of Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior’s intention to reform the armed forces so as to reduce the Balanta’s influence. Fortunately for Guinea-Bissau, ethnic tensions have rarely had any expression outside of the armed forces apparatus. Nevertheless, any near-term attempt to reform the armed forces, especially if it implies a loss of Balanta influence, is likely to face significant resistance, as have previous reforms. With all these issues at hand, the elections may prove to be important for Guinea-Bissau’s future stability. One important outcome could be the end of the country’s international isolation. For example, the AU announced that once a winner is declared for the presidential election, Guinea-Bissau may resume its participation in AU activities. Bilateral and international donors will also find it easier to support Guinea-Bissau’s efforts to address its domestic challenges if there is political stability. Drug trafficking in particular will require international cooperation, since it has regional implications, and Guinea-Bissau does not have the means to tackle it alone. As some reports have pointed out, a number of terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, rely on drugs passing through Guinea-Bissau’s territory to finance their activities. The international community has an opportunity to further support Guinea-Bissau’s security agencies through technical assistance for land and maritime border surveillance as well as with other measures to prevent drug smuggling. The high electoral turnout makes it clear that the population is tired of the cyclical political instability created by political-military frictions. To make sure the military got the message, however, more effective and durable security sector reforms (SSR) will be needed. The European Union and Angola have been responsible for some of the SSR programs carried out in Guinea-Bissau, but their progress to date has shown that additional international efforts should be envisioned. Since independence in 1974, constant coups and instability have kept Guinea-Bissau from maintaining its constitutional framework. With these elections, voters have clearly called for a different political path. Now the country’s political class and military, with help from the international community, must answer that call. Francisco Galamas is an international security and nonproliferation analyst from Portugal. He is member of the Young Atlanticist NATO Working Group of the U.S. Atlantic Council as well as a member of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. He has written articles on other African security and political topics such as the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea. Photo: Civic education officials visit communities to explain voting procedures ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections, April 13, 2014 ( photo by UNDP Guinea Bissau).

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