On November 24 Guinea-Bissau is holding an all-important presidential election that could finally bring to an end the institutional crisis that has been plaguing the country since August 2015. The election is taking place eight months after the legislative polls, which were widely perceived as a means of clarifying the political balance of power.
The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) emerged as the winner of the legislative elections with a relative majority of 47 out of 102 members sitting in parliament – the National People’s Congress (ANP). It formed a parliamentary alliance with its traditional allies, the United People’s Assembly–Guinea-Bissau Democratic Party (APU-PDGB), which entered the ANP for the first time with five representatives, as well as the Union for Change (UM) and the Party for a New Democracy (PND), both winning one seat.
This alliance allowed the PAIGC to secure the 54-seat majority necessary to choose the prime minister and form the government.
However, the March elections did not help to alleviate the situation, given the deep antagonism bedevilling the political arena. First the nomination of the ANP members was delayed. Then the appointment of the prime minister was postponed, with President José Mario Vaz refusing to appoint Domingos Simoes Pereira. This resulted in further delays in forming the new government. Aristides Gomes was finally appointed prime minister instead of Pereira thanks to the mediation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with the support of the international community.
As the presidential election draws near, the political situation remains precarious. The electoral process divides the political class. Moreover, the disagreements between the main political actors and their supporters within civil society and the army may further undermine ongoing stabilisation efforts before, during and after the elections.
Crisis protagonists are ideally positioned
Guinea-Bissau is engaged in an electoral process that transcends the normal framework of an election. The process yet again sets the main actors of the 2015 crisis against each other. With this election, not only are they putting at risk their political future but, if they loose, they also risk prosecution for any economic crimes they may have committed. These actors include four key candidates supported by parties or movements that emerged from within the PAIGC.
Pereira, the PAIGC candidate, is up against Umaro Sissoco Embalo (MADEM-G15), Vaz (independent) and Carlos Gomes Junior (independent). Pereira’s candidacy comes against the backdrop of Vaz’s earlier refusal to appoint him as prime minister. It is for this reason that some commentators regard this election as motivated by revenge tactics rather than pure electioneering.
As the frontrunner in these elections, Pereira’s PAIGC will have to fend off the MADEM-G15, which was created by dissident PAIGC MPs who challenged his leadership. It brings together former party officials who have sufficient mobilisation capacity and financial resources to run an effective electoral campaign.
Gomes Junior, known as Cadogo, is also expected to gnaw at the PAIGC’s electoral base. Cadogo is a former president of the PAIGC and a former prime minister. He is back on the political stage after seven years in exile following the coup d’état of April 2012, which halted the electoral process. In spite of retaining some level of support and popularity both within and outside the party, he has failed to gain the backing of either the PAIGC or any other major political party. This shortcoming, which he shares with outgoing president Vaz, is an impediment in his bid against candidates benefiting from their parties’ electoral apparatus.
Although Pereira remains the favourite for this election, the fragmentation of the electorate within the PAIGC itself makes a second round highly likely. In such an event, Pereira’s victory is far from assured, as he is unlikely to get the backing of his main opponents.
What are the risks and challenges?
A number of political actors in Guinea-Bissau are suspicious of the electoral process and have asked for the revision of the voters’ roll. There is also uncertainty regarding the role of the newly created secretariat for elections. Guinea-Bissau already has two bodies dedicated to the management of electoral processes: the National Electoral Commission and the Office for Technical Assistance to the Electoral Process.
In order to minimise the risk of disagreement over the election results, the government should comply with the decision of the 55th ECOWAS Summit. This decision stipulates that, in the absence of consensus, the voters’ roll used for the legislative elections must be maintained. It also recommends that the government clarify the role of the secretariat in order to dispel any suspicions of fraud.
While significant, these disagreements over the process must in no way overshadow the post-election challenges, which constitute the real issue in this election.
One of the main challenges is the stability of the government established after the parliamentary elections. This stability depends largely on the outcome of the presidential poll. In the event of a victory by one of the candidates of the parliamentary majority – the PAIGC or the APU-PDGB – the government is at less risk of collapsing. Such a scenario would allow for the consolidation of the coalition and for the stability of the government.
At the same time, the victory of an opposition candidate would place the country back on the same track it has been on since 2015, as the two heads of the executive branch, the prime minister and the president, will then belong to opposing parties.
Guinea-Bissau has a semi-presidential system with a president elected by universal suffrage and a prime minister representing the parliamentary majority holding most of the executive powers. The resulting power struggle, especially between the protagonists of the crisis, could lead to the paralysis of the country’s institutions.
These institutions need to be functional to implement the structural reforms necessary for the stabilisation of Guinea-Bissau. As such, it is imperative that the constitution is revised and that the deficiencies of the political system, one of the factors causing instability, are corrected.
Only with much stronger institutions can the country effectively tackle the recovery of its economy and the fight against drug trafficking. The seizures of 789 kg of cocaine in March 2019 and nearly 2 tonnes in August 2019 are a clear reminder that the country remains one of the most important transit points for drugs from Latin America.
Promoting dialogue while remaining firm
The international community should mobilise in order to guarantee the transparency of the process in order to avoid any dispute over the results that could add to the complexity of the situation.
On October 7 a joint mission led by ECOWAS, the African Union, the United Nations and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) visited the country. This mission reminded political actors of the decision by the 55th ECOWAS Summit to support the government that emerged from the parliamentary elections on March 10. The main duties of the government remain organising the presidential election in an inclusive and transparent manner, complying with the electoral timetable already established and maintaining the current register.
This kind of initiative should be renewed as the presidential election approaches. It gives international actors the opportunity to resolve their disagreements while adopting a directive and firm position, even if it implies providing for sanctions in order to deter potential troublemakers.
The persistence of the crisis since 2015 is a clear indication of the duplicity of some political actors who do not hesitate to renege on the agreements they have signed.
Such support from the international community should intensify after the elections, when Guinea-Bissau will need assistance to implement political reforms, revive its economy and, above all, address the internal factors of instability and the external threat caused by transnational organised crime.