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27.12.2019 Africa

Election runoff set to cap turbulent year in Guinea-Bissau

By Allen Yero EMBALO
Guinea-Bissau has suffered four coups and a string of political assassinations since independence from Portugal in 1974.  By JOHN WESSELS (AFP/File)
LISTEN DEC 27, 2019
Guinea-Bissau has suffered four coups and a string of political assassinations since independence from Portugal in 1974. By JOHN WESSELS (AFP/File)

Voters in Guinea-Bissau are being called out to cast their ballots in a presidential runoff Sunday, capping a year of turmoil in the poor, coup-prone West African state.

After months of acrimony, people are being asked to choose between two former prime ministers -- Domingos Simoes Pereira, from the traditional ruling PAIGC party, and opposition figure Umaro Sissoco Embalo.

Embalo, a former general who wears a red-and-white Arab keffiyeh headress, is pitching himself as a unifier of the nation.

He is gambling that he can overhaul Pereira's lead by getting backing from losing candidates in the first round in November.

"Umaro Sissoco Embalo has been able to rally all of the country's heavyweights behind him," said political analyst Agusto Nhaga.

The first round of the election was held on November 24.  By JOHN WESSELS (AFP/File) The first round of the election was held on November 24. By JOHN WESSELS (AFP/File)

A small country of 1.8 million people, Guinea-Bissau gained independence in 1974, but has suffered a string of military coups, attempted coups and political assassinations ever since.

After the latest coup in 2012, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS deployed a nearly 700-member force to try to stabilise the country.

Raucous campaign

The election campaign passed loudly and colourfully and with no violence.

The two weeks before the runoff vote saw parades in the capital Bissau by supporters of rival candidates, touting effigies of their champions.

Pereira, 56, a civil engineer by training, won 40.1 percent of the vote in the first round on November 24.

He belongs to the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which is historically rooted in the fight to end Portugal's colonial rule.

Guinea Bissau's incumbent president Jose Mario Vaz came fourth in the first round.  By JOHN WESSELS (AFP/File) Guinea Bissau's incumbent president Jose Mario Vaz came fourth in the first round. By JOHN WESSELS (AFP/File)

Embalo, 47, came second with 27.65 percent. He represents Madem, an opposition party formed by PAIGC rebels.

The latest crisis erupted in 2015 when the incumbent president, Jose Mario Vaz, sacked Pereira as prime minister, a move that incensed the PAIGC.

Thereafter, Vaz was unable to get parliamentary backing for his proposed prime ministers -- and parliament did not sit for nearly two years until April 2018 when Aristides Gomes was appointed "consensus" prime minister.

Vaz himself contested the first round of voting, but came in a lowly fourth, with just 12.4 percent.

'Don't trust politicians' statements'

In a hard-fought two-hour TV debate on Thursday, Pereira accused Embalo of receiving illegal funding from abroad.

"The money which you are bringing into the country isn't going through legal channels," he said.

Embalo denied this and hit back, accusing Pereira of "dipping into the state's coffers" to finance his election campaign and lashing the PAIGC for mismanaging the economy.

On the streets of Bissau, some voters questioned by AFP voiced scepticism about the country's politicians or were critical of the PAIGC.

"I don't trust the sweet-sounding statements made by politicians," said carpenter Roberto Fo Indi, who said his father had fought in the war of independence "and died in poverty".

Suleimane Camara, a teacher who said he had not been paid for six months, lashed out at the PAIGC for being "unable to meet the public's basic needs".

But fruit seller Joana Imbana said a victory by Pereira "will give a kickstart to development".

Guinea-Bissau ranks 177th out of 189 on the UN Human Development Index, and two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 (1.8 euros) a day.

Latin American drug runners have exploited the instability and poverty to make Guinea-Bissau a hub along the cocaine-smuggling route to Europe.

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