Voters in Guinea-Bissau began casting their ballots on Sunday in a presidential election that many hope will bring stability after years of political turmoil.
President Jose Mario Vaz, 61, is seeking re-election for a second term, and he remains popular among cashew nut farmers in the interior after raising prices for the nuts — the tiny West African country’s biggest export earner.
But he faces stiff opposition following a first five-year term marred by political infighting, regular high-level sackings and corruption that came to a head in the run-up to Sunday’s election.
While no reliable opinion polls have been published, political analysts say the front-runner is former Prime Minister Domingos Simoes Pereira, 56, a moderniser with a relaxed style whose promise to bolster health and education have made him popular with younger voters in the capital, Bissau.
Preliminary results are expected on Nov. 28. If there is no outright winner, a second round between the top two candidates will take place on Dec. 29.
“Guinea Bissau has faced five years of political and institutional crises,” Pereira told Reuters, adding that the country needs “a president who is able to create an atmosphere conducive to the restoration of peace and stability.”
A history of violent government takeovers
Guinea Bissau has suffered nine coups or attempted coups since independence from Portugal in 1974, most recently in 2012 when a military takeover disrupted elections. If Vaz completes his term, he will be the first president to do so.
The country’s deserted beaches and scattered islands are a draw for adventurous tourists, but its unpoliced waters also provide passage for drug traffickers smuggling cocaine en route from South America to Europe.
The next president will inherit major challenges including widespread poverty and an unstable political system in which the majority party appoints the government but the president has the power to dismiss it. There have been seven prime ministers since Vaz took over in 2014.
Vaz fired premier Aristides Gomes on Oct. 29 and appointed a successor, but Gomes refused to step down. For about 10 days the country had two prime ministers, until Vaz backed down under pressure from the regional bloc ECOWAS.
Still, Vaz has promised to accept the results of the vote, using his closing campaign speech on Friday to highlight the fact that he had finished his term in office.
“I managed to do what no one did … in Guinea Bissau since the country became a democracy,” Vaz told supporters. “During my mandate there was no coup and I’m very satisfied about this.”
Hopeful that Sunday’s vote will draw a line under the political crisis, voters were upbeat before voting and the final parades in support of the candidates were accompanied by music and dancing.
Some sounded a note of caution, however, about the challenges faced by whoever is elected.
“We want a president who can resolve the political crisis,” said Pereira supporter Myriam Suarez Wague. “The population is suffering.”