Polls opened on Sunday in Guinea-Bissau’s presidential election, which it is hoped will solve a leadership crisis in the coup-prone and impoverished West African country.
The vote caps four years of political chaos as incumbent Jose Mario Vaz, 62 — who is running again — repeatedly sacked prime ministers and clashed with the parliament.
The latest government dismissal in October sparked international outcry and raised fears that the electoral process would be disrupted.
Despite those concerns, all appeared calm on Sunday morning as voters gathered at open-air polling stations to cast their ballots, while police looked on.
“This election is crucial for Guinea-Bissau, to change the country,” said civil-aviation inspector Domingos Mendes Lopes, 56, outside a polling station in the capital. “Enough of these years of instability.”
Since independence from Portugal in 1974 Guinea-Bissau has known little but military coups and political assassinations. Vaz is the first president in 25 years to not be ousted or killed.
The all-powerful military has promised to respect the election results. As has Vaz, provided they are “transparent and without tampering”.
Some 6,000 members of the armed forces voted earlier this week without incident.
Twelve candidates — all men — are seeking to convince voters that they can restore stability, improve scant public services and tackle the dire economy.
Bags of rice, credit cards and mobile phones were just some of the freebies that politicians in the remote West African nation handed out in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election.
Guinea-Bissau ranks 177th out of 189 in the United Nations Human Development Index, and two thirds of the population live on less than $2 (1.8 euros) a day.
“The situation in Guinea-Bissau is not good,” said Julio Dasylva, a legal assistant who works at the parliament.
“There are a lot of problems and no work,” he said, adding that he was nonetheless hopeful the election would improve things.
The 1.8 million population also have to contend with a political elite that systematically loots the country’s wealth, experts argue.
Latin American drug runners have capitalised on chronic instability to implant themselves, using Guinea-Bissau as a transit point to Europe. Senior military and government figures have been implicated in the trade.
“There is corruption in every ministry,” student Wazu Sambu, 24, told AFP before the vote, calling graft the “first cause” of the country’s problems.
Electoral frontrunners such as Vaz and his longtime political rival Domingos Simoes Pereira promised to tackle endemic problems such as corruption and joblessness during the election campaign, which was mostly peaceful.
Polls close at 1700 GMT. Due to the number of candidates a second run-off round — scheduled for December 29 — is considered highly likely.
– Leadership crisis –
Vaz came to power in 2014 on hopes that he would restore normality after a coup two years prior.
But his presidency has been overshadowed by a paralysing conflict with the the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which began as a Marxist-Leninist movement that fought to end Portuguese rule.
The current political crisis started in 2015 when Vaz sacked then prime minister Pereira — who heads the PAIGC — after a falling-out.
Political deadlock over who should lead the government has persisted ever since.
The PAIGC won parliamentary elections in March.
However, Vaz’s October sacking of another prime minister, who refused to step down, sparked fears of a return to violence.
The Economic Community of West African States condemned the sacking and warned of “risks of civil war”.
Vaz is running as an independent after having being expelled from the PAIGC.
Neighbouring countries fear the deadlock could continue after the election if a non-PAIGC candidate wins, which would set him on a collision course with parliament.
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