Presidential election in chaotic Guinea-Bissau could resolve political impasse

After weeks of political turmoil, violent protests, an alleged coup attempt and the emergence of two competing prime ministers, Guinea-Bissau is holding a presidential election on Sunday (November 24) that many hope will usher in a semblance of calm.

The vote will pit President Jose Mario Vaz against old rival and former Prime Minister, Domingos Simoes Pereira, and 10 other candidates seeking to draw a line under five years of turbulence under Vaz characterised by high-level sackings and a barely functioning parliament.

Pereira, who has styled himself as a moderniser, is seen as the front-runner by international political observers, as well as those within Guinea Bissau.

A pre-election crisis arose from a long-running power struggle between Vaz and the ruling party.

Whatever the result, the vote represents a milestone for Guinea Bissau, which has suffered nine coups, attempted or otherwise, since independence from Portugal in 1974. The West African country’s scattered Atlantic islands, mangrove mazes and unpoliced waters have made it a paradise for adventurous tourists and cocaine traffickers en route from South America to Europe.

Vaz will be the first democratically elected president to have completed a full term in the country of 1.6 million.

The Future

The next president will inherit difficulties caused in part by the political system, in which the majority party or coalition appoints the government but the president has the power to dismiss it in certain circumstances.

A pre-election crisis arose from a long-running power struggle between Vaz and the ruling party that has led to a carousel of seven prime ministers since he took over in 2014.

In the latest round of prime-ministerial musical chairs, Vaz fired premier Aristides Gomes on Oct. 29 and appointed a successor to him, but Gomes refused to step down. For around 10 days the country had two prime ministers until Vaz backed down under pressure from the international community, which said his moves were illegal.

Regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had warned of the threat of civil war and urged the authorities not to allow the election to be derailed.

ECOWAS has played a prominent role in trying to resolve the crisis, imposing economic sanctions on people it judged to be undermining efforts to end the impasse in 2018, including members of Vaz’s faction, as well as his son.

In late October, Prime Minister Gomes accused presidential candidate Umaro Cissoko Embalo of planning a coup. Embalo denied the charge. Meanwhile one protester was killed in a violent anti-government demonstration in early November.

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