Voters in Guinea-Bissau went to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament in the hope of ending a protracted leadership deadlock in a country that has become renowned for drug trafficking and instability.
"I came to vote because I want the development of my country. I hope that the day passes off calmly," said Victor Pereira, 42.
The onetime Marxist ruling party PAIGC, which has run the poor West African country of some two million for most of the 45 years since winning independence from Portugal, is fielding candidates along with 20 opposition parties.
Among them are the main opposition Party of Social Renewal and the Movement for Democratic Change (Madem-G15), made up of dissidents from the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).
The latest crisis in the notoriously volatile country arose in August 2015 when President Jose Mario Vaz, elected a year earlier, sacked his prime minister, Domingos Simoes Pereira who was head of the PAIGC, after a falling out.
At the time, the parallel economy came to play a preponderant role, fuelled by drug trafficking.
Vaz appointed a series of prime ministers, but none garnered sufficient support to achieve a parliamentary majority.
Finally in April 2018, the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediated an agreement leading to the designation of a consensus prime minister, Aristide Gomes, and the resumption of work by the 102-seat parliament.
Gomes was given the caretaker task of preparing for parliamentary polls, in which 36 percent of candidates must be women for the first time.
Initially set for November 18, the polls were postponed to March 10 mainly for technical reasons.
– UN chief pessimistic –
The party that wins on Sunday should appoint the future prime minister, who could once again be Vaz\’s rival Simoes Pereira.
"These are the most contested elections in the history of Guinea-Bissau. We are coming out of a near four-year political crisis and no government has been able to complete its term," noted political analyst Rui Landim.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sounded a note of pessimism last month when he said: "Nothing suggests that these elections will make it possible to resolve the problems undermining the country."
He said a solution could lie in a constitutional review to "clarify the division of labour" between the president and prime minister.
On a positive note, Guterres also said that "the armed forces have remained neutral and have not interfered with the constitutional order" — in a country that has seen 16 coup attempts since independence of which four were successful.
International sanctions remain in place since 2012, after the last violent power seizure.
Guinea-Bissau\’s porous coastline and chronic instability have made it a target for Latin American drug lords trafficking cocaine to Europe, implicating senior government and military officials.
Cashews, the country\’s main export, accounted for nearly half of the national budget in 2017. Growth slowed to around 3.8 percent in 2018 after a drop in cashew production caused by bad weather.
The opposition has contested the accuracy of the electoral roll for Sunday\’s polls, which will be closely watched by international observers.
Campaigning ended on Friday. Some 760,000 people are eligible to vote, with polls closing at 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) on Sunday. First results are expected 48 hours later.
Military sources told AFP that the security forces had been put on alert for any possible violence.
Another election is on the horizon, as Vaz\’s five-year term ends on June 23.