Guinea-Bissau heads to the polls on Sunday in legislative elections, as voters seek stability more than a year after President Umaro Sissoco Embalo dissolved parliament over accusations of corruption.
Twenty-two political parties will compete in the vote to elect 102 MPs, with about 884,000 people registered to vote. Results are expected within 48 hours.
Three dominant parties, including Embalo’s Madem G15 party, share almost all the seats in the national assembly. The other two parties are: the long-dominant African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and the Party for Social Renewal (PRS).
Under the current political system, the majority party or coalition appoints the government but the president has the power to dismiss it in certain circumstances. That has led to political deadlock and infighting in the past.
Embalo dissolved the national assembly in May last year after falling out with lawmakers months after thwarting a coup attempt.
The president said he had “persistent differences that could not be resolved” with parliament, which he said had become rife with “guerrilla politics and conspiracy”.
He accused lawmakers of having protected MPs accused in corruption cases and refusing to be audited.
Embalo, a former army general, has long sought to change the constitution, which the international community cites as an important factor behind the country’s instability.
While the changes he intends to make are not clear, critics accuse him of seeking to consolidate power following the disputed 2019 presidential election.
Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony of approximately two million people, is notoriously unstable, having suffered four military coups since 1974, most recently in 2012.
The latest coup attempt was in February last year when gunmen stormed a government compound where Embalo was holding a cabinet meeting. Embalo, who held on to power, linked the incident to the country’s booming drug trade.
The country’s scattered Atlantic islands and mangrove mazes are a draw for tourists but also cocaine traffickers en route from South America to Europe.
Given the fragmented playing field, analysts and politicians doubt that a clear majority will emerge.
“There will be no winner with an absolute majority in these elections. It is impossible,” Prime Minister Nuno Gomes Nabiam, leader of the Assembly of the People United–Democratic Party of Guinea-Bissau, said. “No party is ready to govern Guinea-Bissau alone.”
Aftershocks from the war in Ukraine, which have driven up global food prices, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, have also had a detrimental effect on the country’s economy.
One-fifth of the population experiences food shortages, according to the United Nations.
Farmers have been unhappy with the government raising the base price of the cashew nut, a key export and source of revenue for the population.
Discontent with the government’s policy was evident on the campaign trail.
“We travelled all over the country, but farmers refuse to come and listen to the speeches of some candidates because of the failure of the cashew nut … campaign,” Buli Camara, a Madem activist, told AFP news agency.
“This year, it’s a total fiasco.”
Elsewhere, there is little enthusiasm for the election.
Antonio Nhaga, head of a media monitoring group, said leaders “don’t propose anything that would lead anyone to believe [there will be] actual change in people’s lives”.
But reform is much needed.
Instability and poverty have made the country appealing to drug traffickers who smuggle cocaine from Latin America to Europe. Timber trafficking and corruption are also rampant.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has deployed a team of 15 election observers, while 600 soldiers have been deployed to prevent a new coup.