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Elections in Guinea-Bissau: The eternal search for stability

Braima Darame
June 2, 2023

More than 890,000 voters are called upon to elect a new parliament in Guinea-Bissau this Sunday. The elections are taking place in a deeply divided country where basic democratic rights are facing enormous pressure.

Guinea-Bissau's presidential palace
Image: DW/Braima Darame

Close to a million people are about the cast their votes in the upcoming elections in Guinea-Bissau. However, many of those going to the polls this Sunday are wondering what purpose elections even serve as the country plunges from one crisis into the next.

The small nation is used to its government being dismissed, military coups disrupting democratic processes and its parliament being summarily dissolved.

Guinea-Bissau doesn't seem to be able to emerge from an almost chronic sense of political instability.

Elections delayed by president

The latest legislative elections will take place on Sunday — several months after the original deadline specified by electoral law for the timeline on new elections had expired.

The vote was supposed to be held in March 2023 already at the latest, following the dissolution of Parliament by President Umaro Sissoco Embalo on May 16, 2022. But that did not happen.

For a year now, Embalo has been appointing members of the government to manage the affairs of the country — without parliamentary oversight and without personally being held accountable for anything along the way.

Choosing between systems of government

Guinea-Bissau's current dilemma began with a power struggle between the president and the parliament at the beginning of 2022. 

President Embalo wanted deputies to approve his proposal for a constitutional revision, which would make the head of state also head of government — as is the case in the majority of constitutions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

However, parliament rejected the constitutional amendments proposed by the president, which is how yet another institutional crisis began in the country, according to political analyst Rui Jorge Semedo.

"The presidency publicly favored a presidential system, while parliament, at that time, advocated for a semi-presidential system. This dispute will certainly continue in the next legislature", Semedo told DW.

Umaro Sissoco Embaló speaking into a DW microphone
The president of Guinea-Bissau, Umaro Sissoco Embalo, has generated a lot of controversy since his election in 2019Image: DW/Braima Darame

Power struggle in a powerless state

Many observers in Guinea-Bissau accuse the president of assuming the role of being in charge of everything without any overt power-grab or public mandate.

"The political-institutional crisis is almost chronic in Guinea-Bissau. Despite poverty and the worsening social crisis, politicians in this campaign have been repeating past electoral promises that are never fulfilled. The struggle for power control has hindered the country's development," notes Semedo.

"The state organs, in recent times, have been working practically without any autonomy, meaning that the separation of powers practically doesn't exist anymore."

The country is about to enter its 11th legislature in 29 years of democracy. For many the political system of Guinea-Bissau has failed.

In these legislative elections, there is also a greater  climate of distrust, starting with the opposition parties, which have put the current leadership of the National Electoral Commission in question.

At the same time, many believe that since Embalo came to power in February 2020, fundamental freedoms and democratic structures in the country have suffered several setbacks.

A parade of party members in Bissau
Guinea-Bissau's election campaign kicked off with events from the country's different political formationsImage: Iancuba Danso/DW

Violence and pressure on the media

There are many examples of this development: Radio stations have suffered attacks, houses of political commentators have been vandalized, activists have been brutally beaten, bloggers have reportedly been kidnapped and tortured.

Those who dare to criticize the regime — including the opposition — fear that their own homes may be the next target.

Julio Mendonca, the secretary-general of the National Union of Guinean Workers (UNTG), the largest trade union in the country, says that such important issues have been sidelined in the current campaign, as the government appears to resort to increasingly draconian methods to control the people.

"It is clear that the campaign... is run by millionaires connected to the state. People or party representatives who didn't even have a bicycle before are now driving brand-new luxury cars. It is an insult to the people," Mendonca said to DW. He also said that many of these activities are funded by the embezzlement of public funds.

Meanwhile, "people live in poverty, there is no purchasing power, there is nothing," Mendonca said. "Workers are suffering greatly, there is no healthcare system in the country, there is no education for the people."

A strike to 'paralyze' Guinea-Bissau

On the eve of the elections, the UNTG now plans to conduct a series of strikes to "paralyze the country," 

"The government don't engage in dialogue with anyone; they only use Machiavellian strategies to combat unionism in Guinea-Bissau.

"We are witnessing the worst moment of trade unionism in Guinea, with the assault and closure of the headquarters of the country's largest trade union center, carried out by the political leader of this country," Mendonça said, listing the rising cost of living as well as an "abysmal increase in taxes" as the main concerns cited by members of the union.

Destruction after assault on the offices of Radio Capital
In February 2022, the editorial offices of the private broadcaster "Radio Capital" were attacked and practically destroyedImage: Privat

No change in political actors

One of the biggest points of contention is the fact that all the leaders of the country's major political parties are still the same people who have been at the helm of the state for decades.

Parties like PAIGC, MADEM-G15, and PRS all equate absolute majority governments with the only guarantee for governing stability. However, since the advent of the first multiparty elections in 1994, Guinea-Bissau has already had three such absolute majorities in parliament — that did see some instability.

After the first absolute majority in 1994, in which the former libaration movement PAIGC won 62 seats, the country stumbled into civil war.

The second absolute majority, in which the PAIGC obtained 67 seats in 2008, culminated in a coup d'état in 2012 which saw Carlos Gomes Junior removed from governance.

In the third absolute majority government, the PAIGC, led by Domingos Simoes Pereira, dropped from 67 to 57 seats in parliament in 2014, after a number of dissidents left the party in a dispute. This last event led to the expulsion of 15 PAIGC deputies, who formed their own party, the "MADEM-G15."

A woman casts her vote in front of election officials in 2019
During the presidential elections in December 2019, seen here, 550,000 cast their votes in a runoff roundImage: DW/B. Darame

A democratic project in regress

The activist and politician Nelvina Barreto, current vice-president of the Party of National Unity, fears that these elections will bring more of the same. 

"It doesn't seem to me that these elections will remove the sources of tension and conflict. Divisions have deepened with the use of ethnic-tribal or religious arguments, which leaves us even more concerned," he said.

Barreto also believes that the new parliament will have fewer women than in the previous legislature.

"In fact, the political chessboard is predominantly composed of men who traditionally adhere to a paternalistic culture, and do not look favorably upon female prominence in this space," Barreto said.

Equality, however, is only one of many issues that the country has to work on, judging by its past: Guinea-Bissau has had 22 prime ministers and three military coups since 1994 — in addition to the yearlong civil war from 1998 to 1999.

'As One' shows his hometown Bissau

Edited by Sertan Sanderson

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