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Election of the weekend: Guinea-Bissau

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On Sunday, just a few months prior to the 50th anniversary of their declaration of independence, voters in the small West African state of Guinea-Bissau will elect a new parliament, their unicameral National People’s Assembly. The 100 of the 102 seats will be elected via closed list PR in 27 multimember districts, while the 101st and 102nd members will be elected via single member district elections representing Bissau-Guineans living abroad in Africa and Bissau-Guineans living abroad outside of Africa, respectively.

The former Portuguese colony’s declaration of independence in September of 1973 was initially more aspirational than actual, but within a year the Carnation revolution dramatically altered Lisbon’s stance toward its colonial subjects, and de facto independence was achieved. As with many post-colonial democracies, The primary organization fighting for independence prior to 1973, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), quickly became the dominant political party in Bissau-Guinean politics, although they have been in opposition since the 2019 election. They remained the largest party in parliament, with 47/102 seats, but their two primary competitors, the moderate Party for Social Renewal (21 seats) and Madem G15, a new party formed by anti-corruption PAIGC defectors in 2018 (27 seats) managed to put together a narrow minority government coalition with a small party, getting them to 50 seats, and forcing PAIGC into opposition. The Guinean political system is semi-presidential; the current president, political scientist Umaro Sissoco Embalo, also comes out of the Madem G15 exodus from PAIGC, although his relations with the coalition led by his party have been poor.

Bissau-Guinean politics have not exactly been a model of democratic stability. It was 20 years after independence was achieved, in 1994, that the first multi-party elections were held. (PAIGC leadership in the 1970’s and 80’s adhered to an anti-democratic, vanguard party version of socialism). From here, the country experienced:

An attempted coup that led to a civil war (1998-99)

Successful bloodless coup (2003)

Unsuccessful coup attempt (2008)

President and joint chief of staff assassinated on successive days (2009)

Leader of 2008 coup attempt sneaks back into country, destabilizing military unrest, PM detained under orders of the president (2010)

Successful coup (2012)

Contested presidential election, Embalo sworn in before his victory is official; two presidential candidates claiming to be the rightful president simultaneously (2019)

Unsuccessful coup (2022)

This is technically a snap election. Embalo, who appears to have a bit of the strongman energy (he compares himself favorably to President Duterte in the Philippines) and seeks to expand the power of the office of the president. In May of 2022, a few months after surviving a coup attempt involving an attack on a cabinet meeting that left 12 dead, citing “persistent and unresolvable differences” with parliament, which he described as “a space for guerrilla politics and plotting,” Embalo dissolved parliament, calling for elections later in the year. This election was meant to take place in December, but was further postponed at the last minute for unspecified reasons.

What is likely to happen in today’s election? Will it shift the balance of power significantly? I have no idea. (Should LGM be so fortunate as to have a reader with a better handle on this election than I, please do chime in.) This election has been marked by violence and instability, and attacks on the press—radio stations attacked, political bloggers kidnapped and tortured, and so on. The sitting PM has called for dialing back the incendiary rhetoric, to apparently little avail. One report suggests the country’s largest labor union, unsatisfied with all three major parties, will call for strikes and labor actions to ‘paralyze’ the country (Their offices were attacked, with apparent government support, last month). I don’t know who, exactly to root for, nor do I know who is likely to win. A reasonable but perhaps optimistic outcome to hope for here: a) a peaceful election with a widely accepted result, that manages to produce b) a parliament capable of and willing to stand up to the president’s constitutionally dubious power grabs.

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