BISSAU: Guinea-Bissau voted for a new president on Sunday in a key test for a fragile state plagued by powerful cocaine cartels and upended in a military coup two years ago.
Already mired in poverty, the west African nation has been stagnating since 2012 under the rule of a transitional government backed by its all-powerful military, with the economy anaemic and drug trafficking fuelling corruption. “I came here at 5:00 am in order to vote early. It is important to vote,” said Queba Sanha, who was second in line behind the manager of a polling station in the capital Bissau. Crowds were already gathering outside many polling stations across the city as voting began on time at 7:00 am (0700 GMT), with some 3,048 centres due to remain open until 6:00 pm.
Many Bissau-Guineans even spent the night nearby polling stations, marking their place in the queue with stones and empty drinks cans. Almost 800,000 voters have a choice between former finance minister Jose Mario Vaz, who won the first round on April 13 but failed to get an outright majority, and runner-up Nuno Gomes Nabiam, an independent. “The big unknown is what the role of the army will be, taking into account that it intervened in 2012 to stop the process,” Bissau-based political analyst Bamba Kote told AFP. “The military high command supports Nuno, but will the army dare to intervene again in the current context, with a large number of observers and the international community closely following the process?”
The former Portuguese colony is the only west African nation to have achieved independence through military force and, since 1974, the army and state have been in constant, often deadly, competition. Its 1.6 million people have suffered intermittent unrest since liberation, as well as a series of military coups attributed largely to the unprecedented bloating of the army after the war. This has led to chronic instability and a dysfunctional state which, with its porous coastline and archipelago of islands, provided fertile ground for Latin American drug lords looking for a hub from which to ship their cocaine to Europe. An elected president has yet to finish his term in office in Guinea-Bissau. The United States has charged 2012 coup leader Antonio Indjai with drug trafficking and seeking to sell arms to Colombian FARC rebels, although he has not been extradited and remains in Bissau.
The election will be the first since Indjai agreed in May 2012 to hand power to a civilian transitional regime headed by President Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo. Vaz, the favourite and a member of the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, has vowed to pursue “ongoing dialogue” with the army if he wins. With a 40.9 percent share of the first-round vote against Nabiam’s 24.8 percent, the 57-year-old father of three is the establishment candidate. Nabiam, an engineer, has campaigned as the “unifying” choice, capable of bringing stability to his country. Around 4,000 troops were ensuring security while 245 observers from various countries were deployed to polling stations.
The orderly start to the election witnessed in Bissau appeared to have been replicated elsewhere in the country, according to local media and residents contacted by AFP. “We stayed up all night. The first voters came at 6:00 am. Things are going well at the moment, without any hitches,” said Bobo Cisse, head of a polling centre in Gabu, the largest town in eastern Guinea-Bissau. “For me, this election is much more important than others, because it is supposed to bring an end to two years of suffering... As women, these two years have been difficult for us,” said market trader Nhima Seydi, 42. Results are expected within five days of polling stations closing.
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