Bissau: Guinea-Bissau voters were choosing between two former leaders in a presidential run-off on Sunday that many fear could stir violence rather than restore stability in the West African nation.
Malam Bacai Sanha is widely tipped to beat Kumba Yala after the latter’s record in power between 2000 and 2003 left bitter memories in the former Portuguese colony, which has endured years of coups and political violence.
Already desperately poor and struggling to secure aid money or lure potential investors, Guinea-Bissau suffered tit-for-tat assassinations of its army chief and his arch-enemy President Joao Bernardo Vieira in March.
Sanha won the most votes in a presidential election on 28 June but fell short of an outright majority.
Yala’s history of unpredictable behaviour — he unilaterally declared himself president in 2005, temporarily seizing the presidential palace — and his close links with the armed forces led to calls for restraint, once the result was announced.
“We particularly call on the losing party to refrain from taking any form of violent actions that could further undermine the fragile stability in the country,” two international conflict resolution organisations said in a joint statement.
No violent incidents were reported on Sunday. Observers from the European Union, African Union, United States, Japan and regional body ECOWAS are present for the poll in which around 600,000 people are expected to vote.
“Today is a special day for Guinea-Bissau because it constitutes a day of hope for a tired, traumatised people,” said Bissau resident Maria Lurdees Pereira after voting.
In an open letter to the candidates, the International Crisis Group and the Canadian International Institute of Applied Negotiation said any challenge to the result should be taken to the courts, not on to the streets.
“Equally, we also urge the winning party to act in a magnanimous and reconciliatory fashion because whatever the outcome of the elections, the newly elected president will be faced with immense challenges that should transcend partisan politics.”
No More Assasinations
The country has a history of military intervention in politics and its political life has been increasingly infected by powerful Latin American drug gangs who use Guinea-Bissau as a transit point for shipping cocaine to Europe.
Before the first round of the election, a candidate and another senior politician were shot dead in what the authorities called a counter-coup operation. Analysts said the deaths were another spasm of political killings.
Holding final rallies just a few hundred metres from each other on the final day of campaigning on Friday, Sanha and Yala promised peace, stability and the end of impunity for drug dealers, who have had links with the authorities. “No one else will be assassinated in Guinea-Bissau if I win the presidential elections,” Sanha, candidate for the PAIGC, the biggest party in parliament, told his supporters.
Yala spoke about ending a culture of assassinations. The fiery former philosophy professor also said he would seek a dialogue if elected, and his PRS party was ready for power.
“I will win the elections to turn things on their head, especially ending assassination and the PAIGC’s totalitarian tendencies,” he said.