ON SUNDAY APRIL 13TH, the chronically war-torn state of Guinea-Bissau successfully held its first round of presidential and People’s Assembly elections since a 2012 coup d’état interrupted the last planned vote. The coup, condemned by the United Nations as a blatant power-grab by corrupt military leaders, has left the country mired in a state of political, juridical and socio-economic unrest. The military continues to pursue an agenda of personal enrichment and disregard for the country’s people through illicit narco-trafficking, using the Rio Geba delta and Bissagos Islands archipelago as a staging ground for distribution of South American drugs in the European market. As David Earnshaw rightly pointed out a few months ago, these conditions have made the future prospects for Guinea-Bissau look bleak, with any hope for political progress seeming contingent upon an unresponsive and totalitarian military autocracy. Tentatively, however, the country’s fortunes may be shifting thanks to international observers’ positive reactions to—and the military’s relative acquiescence in—the elections that could reinstate a popularly supported civilian government.
The elections in this small country of 1.5 million people, bordered by Senegal to the north and Guinea to the south and east, are the most important step taken in over a decade and can be seen as a response to explicit pressure imposed on the ruling military government. The elections in Guinea-Bissau will not immediately address the underlying causes of the state’s failed political and economic history, but rather are representative of a regional and international need to tackle what many see as a key obstacle to the stability and security of all of West Africa.
To quell restive military leaders and push for accelerated democratic transition, regional partnerships like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) in coordination with the UN have threatened further international isolation and economic sanctions that would push the Bissau-Guinean military regime to the point of bankruptcy. In essence, if no concrete democratic needs are met, the international community and regional actors will introduce targeted sanctions to cripple corrupt military figures. This has placed the military in a position to accept civilian rule, and it also raises the stakes for any future civilian government official to work constructively with the military to reform security sector corruption and narcotics trafficking with an eye on deterring a return to political violence.
Guinea-Bissau’s precarious political history places added stress on the lasting nature of these elections and any hope for enduring democratic governance. The front-runner after Sunday’s elections, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) adheres to a Marxist-Socialist political ideology and, as the party of Bissau-Guinean liberation, embodies a semi-militarist political ethos. The challenge of the PAIGC will be to avoid unilateral governance in favour of a more pluralistic approach, and to bring into the fold political parties that will foster inclusion and power sharing as part of a new government. With 40.9% of the presidential vote, Jose Mario Vaz, the former finance minister and candidate of the PAIGC has the edge against the candidate from Party for Social Renewal (PRS), Nuno Gomes Nabiam who garnered 25.1%. Given Guinea-Bissau’s first-past-the-post majority system, these election results demand a second-round presidential runoff on May 18th. Stability in the interim and after the second vote will indicate the prospect for enduring peace and likely influence the role outside interests will play in maintaining democracy down the line. In effect these two elections are a test of political will in a country that has never seen such a concept successfully come to fruition.
Like so many countries with a history of coup-induced political unrest, the pitfalls of bad governance are many, vivid, and close at hand. One possibility is that any new Bissau-Guinean government will lapse into an elite enriching ‘guardian’ state, controlled in part by the military to effectively guard the status quo of a non-democratic and corrupt state structure, whilst nominally acting in the name of democracy. On the other hand, wide-ranging positive responses to these elections are indicative of a chance for real political structural change. Regional and multi-national oversight and pressure for free and fair elections in Guinea-Bissau could be paying off, at least in the near term. Indeed, ECOWAS dedicated 750 of its troops across the country to maintain order and deter military meddling during the voting process. As a result of these regional safeguards and apparently minimal military disruption, the international community has applauded the Bissau-Guinean elections as a watershed moment.
Popular confidence in the democratic vote appears high as well, with an estimated 89.29% electoral turnout—the largest in Guinea-Bissau’s history. Importantly, international observers like ECOWAS, the AU and UN have deemed that the elections demonstrated “transparency and strict compliance with the law.”  That sentiment was echoed by a US Department of State press release commending the Bissau-Guinean people for “patience and civic engagement,” and security services for their role in maintaining high standards of conduct and non-interference in the democratic process. The smoothness with which the elections took place is truly remarkable, as is the possibility for a slow but meaningful reshaping of Bissau-Guinean political culture.
For the time being, these elections seem to be the greatest hope to reverse the political malaise that has afflicted Guinea-Bissau since its independence from Portugal. After suffering over the last four decades from an endless revolving door of seemingly corrupt politicians and generals, the country desperately needs reform to benefit its citizens. Time is of the essence, however, and the actors that created a favourable climate for democratic transition need to ensure directly that the new government serves and addresses the needs of its people by supporting a robust public sector and citizens’ welfare. In a narrow window, these elections have the capacity to lift Guinea-Bissau out of failed state status, but only with a continued commitment to openness on the part of domestic candidates and sustained economic and security support by the international community and state actors of West Africa.