Guinea-Bissau votes in presidential runoff to end turmoil

Malick Rokhy Ba and Allen Yero Embalo
1 / 5

Voters are hoping that a new leader could finally end the country's instability

Voters are hoping that a new leader could finally end the country's instability (AFP Photo/SEYLLOU)

Bissau (AFP) - Guinea-Bissau voters cast their ballots in a presidential runoff Sunday with the hope of ending months of political turmoil in the coup-prone West African state that is one of the world's poorest nations.

Some 700,000 registered voters chose between two former prime ministers -- Domingos Simoes Pereira, from the traditional ruling PAIGC party, and opposition figure Umaro Sissoco Embalo.

Both promised a better economic future in a country wracked by poverty, instability and corruption.

Incumbent Jose Mario Vaz crashed out of the race in the first round in November -- becoming the first elected president in 25 years to reach the end of his mandate without being ousted or dying in office, in a country where the military has loomed large in politics.

"This is the most important day. We want everything to go well," said Dominique Zale, a security guard and father of six who spoke to AFP at a polling station near the port in the capital Bissau, where voters started lining up before dawn.

At a nearby polling station, 31-year-old economics student Jair Fernandes Martins said the next president "will have the mission to make the country work".

"We must vote to change things," he said.

Electoral commission head Felisberta Vaz Moura told AFP that turnout was healthy. "Voting is going well across the country with no incidents reported," Moura said.

Nearly 70 percent of Guinea-Bissau's 1.8 million people live on less than $1.90 a day and the small tropical country ranks 178th out of 189 on the UN Human Development Index.

It gained independence from Portugal in 1974, but has suffered a string of military coups, attempted coups and political assassinations ever since.

After the latest coup in 2012, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS deployed a nearly 700-member force to try to stabilise the fragile nation.

But observers have expressed cautious optimism that the military would not disrupt the political process this time.

"Everywhere we have been there is a good atmosphere," said the head of the ECOWAS observation mission, former Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, in a post on Twitter.

Polls closed at 1700 GMT, with the results not expected until next week.

- Years of crisis -

Pereira, 56, a civil engineer by training, won 40.1 percent of the vote in the first round on November 24.

He belongs to the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which dominates parliament and is historically rooted in the fight to end Portugal's colonial rule.

After casting his ballot at a polling station installed under a tree on the outskirts of Bissau, Pereira said he hoped that after the vote "we can build national harmony, so that our country can fire up and grow".

Embalo, a former general who wears a red-and-white Arab keffiyeh headdress, is gambling that he can chip away at Pereira's lead by getting backing from candidates knocked out in the first round in November.

The 47-year-old came second with 27.65 percent. He represents Madem, an opposition party formed by PAIGC rebels.

"I am making a vibrant appeal to the entire population to come and vote. It is the only way to save Guinea-Bissau from the 46 years of misfortune since independence," Embalo told AFP after voting in Gabu in the east of the country.

The latest crisis erupted in 2015 when Vaz sacked Pereira as prime minister, a move that incensed the PAIGC.

Thereafter, Vaz was unable to get parliamentary backing for his proposed prime ministers -- and parliament did not sit for nearly two years until April 2018 when Aristides Gomes was appointed "consensus" prime minister.

Vaz came fourth in the first round of voting, with just 12.4 percent.

- Poverty, graft and cocaine -

Latin American drug runners have exploited the instability and poverty in Guinea-Bissau to make the country a hub along the cocaine-smuggling route to Europe.

It has also been lacerated by graft, ranking 172nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2018 index for perceived levels of corruption.

Fisherman Moutar Diallo called on the future president to build roads, lower the price of rice and solve "the problem of hospitals where pregnant women die" giving birth alone.

burs/gd