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Guinea-Bissau: Ex-PMs advance to runoff election

Ineke Mules | Antonio Cascais
November 27, 2019

Incumbent President Jose Mario Vaz is officially out of the race, with Domingos Simoes Pereira and Umaro Cissoko Embalo due to face-off on December 29. Guinea-Bissau has long been plagued by political instability.

A side-by-side image of Domingos Simões Pereira und Umaro Sissoco Embaló
Image: DW/B. Darame

Two of Guinea-Bissau's former prime ministers are set to participate in a presidential election run-off after winning the majority of the votes in the first-round poll held on November 24.

The country's electoral commission announced on Wednesday that Domingos Simoes Pereira and Umaro Sissoco Embalo will face off in a second round on December 29. Pereira finished first with 40% of the vote representing the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), while Embalo, who represents Madem — an opposition party composed of PAIGC rebels — came second with 28%.

Incumbent President Jose Mario Vaz was eliminated from the race after receiving just 12% of the vote. His five-year tenure was marred by corruption, high-level dismissals and frequent political infighting, having worked with seven different prime ministers. However, he is the first president in 25 years to reach the end of his mandate without being ousted in a military coup or assassinated.

His critics have accused him of failing to tackle rampant corruption and stem the flow of cocaine through the country from South America to Europe during his tenure as president.

A poll worker counts the votes in Guinea Bissau
Poll workers count the votes following the first round of the 2019 presidential electionImage: DW/B. Darame

Political instability the norm in Guinea-Bissau

Guinea Bissau has long been marred by a divisive political culture. The run up to the election was overshadowed by a years-long confrontation between Vaz and the government which began when he sacked Pereira as prime minister back in 2015. For almost two years parliament did not sit until Aristides Gomes was appointed as a 'consensus prime minister' in April 2018.

The PAIGC went on to win legislative elections in March this year, but Vaz refused to name Pereira as prime minister and reappointed Gomes instead. Only a few months later in October he attempted to sack Gomes and his government, however they refused to step down. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has since extended its stabilizing military mission in the country until March 2020.

Jose Mario Vaz speaks to the media
Incumbent Jose Mario Vaz is out of the presidential raceImage: Getty Images/AFP/Seyllou

Despite the political chaos, which sparked rigging fears, sociologist Miguel de Barros told DW the election process went smoothly.

"There is no indication there was any manipulation or violation of the rules in the electoral process, nor was there any complaint from the electoral commission that could justify non-recognition of the outcome," he said. "In light of this, it's not expected that any of the candidates will publically question the result or even legally challenge it."

Speaking to reporters at his party's headquarters Pereira appeared to affirm this prediction: "We are satisfied with the results. I salute Umaro Embalo Cissoko, my second round opponent, whom I respect."

'They could not be more different'

Political analyst Augusto Nhaga says Pereira and Embalo represent opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of their political appeal.

"They could not be more different," he told DW. "Domingos Simoes Pereira's [leadership] style is cosmopolitan and western, while his opponent is much more eccentric in his appearance and much closer to the people."

Pereira — also known simply by his initials as DSP — served as prime minister from 2014 until August 2015 when he was sacked by President Vaz. But he retained his political influence as the current chair of the dominant PAIGC party and can still count on the support of its powerful members. Pereira also has closer relations with the Portuguese-speaking international community: From 2008 to 2012, he was the Secretary-General of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. However, he has been criticized for allegedly using drug money to help fund the PAIGC's elaborate campaign.

Domingos Simões Pereira (PAIGC)
PAIGC party candidate Domingos Simoes Pereira came out on top in the first round of votingImage: DW/B. Darame

Read more: Guinea-Bissau's political crisis deepens

Embalo — often referred to as Sissoco (his maternal family name) — also served as prime minister as a member of the PAIGC party from November 2016 until January 2018. The businessman and former general then split from the party along with 14 other MPs to form the Movement for a Democratic Alternative (Madem). As a Muslim and a member of the Fulani ethnic group, the issue of religion was often at the forefront of his campaign, drawing criticism from some in the religiously and ethnically diverse country.

"Sissoco was accused by his opponents of being an Islamist and having financed his campaign from obscure Arab-based sources," said Nhaga. "[He] wore a turban so that he would have a distinguishing feature compared to the other candidates, so he would immediately be recognized on the ballot paper. But the accusation that he is a fundamentalist is not correct. He is a Muslim but he is also married to a Christian."

Umaro Sissoco Embaló
Umaro Sissoco Embalo made sure he was easy for voters to recognize during the campaignImage: DW/B. Darame

With both candidates hit by serious allegations during their campaigns relating to the sources of their funds, Nhaga says it's difficult to predict who will win the second round.

"It depends on the recommendations of the unsuccessful candidates," he told DW. "Many still have not decided and in the next few days negotiations will begin. And as past experience shows, most of those who voted for the losing candidates will follow their recommendations."

'We are tired of the eternal chaos'

Citizens who have long been caught up in the relentless power plays hope these elections will bring the change they have been waiting for.

"We hope there will be finally be some political clarity," one young man told DW. "We are tired of the eternal chaos in our country. We have no salaries…the children have no schools, there is nothing. We just want all the citizens of Guinea-Bissau to finally start working together for a better country, and soon we'll need a new president to form a government."

Electoral workers verify a voter's identity at an outdoor polling station in Bissau
Observers pronounced round one of the presidential elections in Guinea-Bissau free and fairImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency

Sociologist De Barros told DW that citizens — many of whom were voting for the first time — were watching the election closely to ensure it was free and fair.

"The people have shown that they didn't just want to vote and otherwise stand aside, but they also wanted to go to the polling station an make sure that all the rules and laws regarding the count were observed," he said. "As far as we can tell there were no restrictions on the electoral rights of all citizens. There were also no restrictions on citizens who wanted to stand for election."

The former Portuguese colony achieved independence in 1974 following an 11-year armed struggle led by PAIGC. It has been through four successful coups — most recently in 2012 — as well as 16 attempted coups. It has long struggled with corruption and in 2018 ranked 172 out of 180 states on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index.

Pulling Guinea Bissau out of poverty