A man casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau November 24, 2019. PHOTO: Reuters

Guinea-Bissau citizens return to poll on Sunday to decide their president 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 have a choice between two former prime ministers — Domingos Simoes Pereira, from the traditional ruling PAIGC party, and opposition figure Umaro Sissoco Embalo.

Both are promising 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.

Polling stations often set up in the open air, opened at 0700 GMT.

“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.

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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.

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

The small tropical country 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.

He added that polling stations visited by mid-morning had a participation rate of about 50 per cent.

Polls close at 1700 GMT and the results are not expected until next week.

– Years of crisis –

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

The Guinea-Bissau presidential candidate 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”.

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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 per cent. 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 per cent.

– 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.

[AFP]

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