Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau: Peaceful run-up to presidential election after shaky start to the campaign

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BISSAU, 14 June (IRIN) - Three main candidates are vying for power in Sunday's presidential election which aims to return Guinea-Bissau to constitutional rule and stability following a civil war and six years of political turmoil.

Diplomats and local political analysts are expecting a three-cornered fight between former presidents Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira and Kumba Yala and Malam Bacai Sanha, the official candidate of the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC).

Interim President Henrique Rosa, who has helped to guide this small West African country back to democracy following a bloodless coup in September 2003, is not standing for election.

With the incumbent stepping down, the campaign has been peaceful and good-natured.

Early fears of military intervention after Yala and a handful of his military supporters briefly occupied the presidential palace during the early hours of 24 May proved unfounded.

The army, which has intervened repeatedly in politics since Guinea-Bissau achieved independence from Portugal in 1974, has remained quietly on the sidelines.

The capital Bissau and the other main towns have been plastered with campaign posters and cars blaring out music and campaign messages from the rival candidates have been racing round the streets.

Dancing women and non-stop radio broadcasts

The radio waves have been clogged with daily 10-minute broadcasts by all 13 presidential candidates and women have turned out in force to liven up the campaign rallies with drumming, dancing and singing.

Johan Ven Ecke, a Belgian member of the European Parliament who is leading a team of over 90 European Union election observers, told local radio stations at the weekend, that he was broadly satisfied with the way the elections had been organised and the peaceful and good-natured way in which the various candidates and their supporters were behaving.

Vieira, an army general who seized power in a 1980 coup and ruled this former Portuguese colony for 19 years until 1999, has been running the best financed and highest profile election campaign.

He returned from exile in Portugal briefly in April to register as a voter and came back again on 4 June to launch his campaign for a return to power through the ballot box.

Now aged, 67, Vieira still has many supporters in the PAIGC, where he served as a guerrilla commander during the bush war which led to independence.

He also enjoys strong backing from President Lansana Conte of neighbouring Guinea-Conakry, whose helicopter he borrowed for his first trip home two months ago.

Vieira's supporters have erected posters throughout the country. They have also been giving away hundreds of motorbikes and bicycles and thousands of T-shirts to curry favour with the public.

A cargo plane flew in from Dubai last week bringing half a dozen four-wheel drive cars and a fresh consignment of posters and T-shorts to boost his campaign.

Although Vieira only arrived back in Guinea-Bissau two weeks before polling day, he has attracted crowds of several thousand people throughout the country.

Vieira promises stability and national unity

The former military leader was forced out of power in 1999 by a short by vicious civil war which divided the army.

But now, six years later, he is projecting himself as a figure of national unity, capable of bringing stability to this cash-strapped country of 1.3 million people, most of whom grow rice and cassava and earn small amounts of cash from selling cashew nuts.

"I stand for peace, I stand for stability, I stand for the national unity of all Guineans without distinction of race, colour or religion," Vieira told a rally of about 7,000 people in the northeastern town of Gabu last week.

While Vieira has tried to project himself as a conciliatory figure with broad appeal, Yala, who ruled from 2000 until his overthrow in 2003, has been playing the ethnic and religious card to win a fresh majority.

Although he has avoided mass meetings, Yala and his supporters have been assiduously canvassing voters door-to-door.

The former philosophy teacher is the founder and historic leader of the Social Renovation Party (PSR), the main opposition party in parliament. This draws its support mainly from Yala's own Balanta ethnic group, which accounts for a third of Guinea-Bissau's population and provides the backbone of the army.

Yala's overthrow two years ago was widely greeted with sighs of relief since his government had been plagued by administrative and political chaos and had left civil servants, teachers, doctors and nurses unpaid for months.

Now he is trying to make a political comeback by courting selected powerful sections of the community, rather than Guinea-Bissau's 538,000 registered voters as a whole./b>

Reaching out beyond his Balanta power-base, Yala has appealed for support from Muslims from other ethnic communities, promising that he will help more local pilgrims undertake the haj to Mecca.

He has also tried to drum up support in the south by promising to transfer the capital from Bissau to Buba, a small town in the south of this flat country divided by wide meandering rivers, where there are plans to build a deep-water port.

Coup attempt or political gesture?

Yala, 52, began his campaign rather bizarrely by briefly occupying the presidential palace in the company of several military supporters in the early hours of 24 May. This action raised fears that the army would intervene to prevent the holding of free and fair elections.

However, Yala and his supporters left the building peacefully after a few hours.

Several eye-witnesses reported that they had seen Yala inside the presidency, but the mercurial politicians later denied that he had been inside the building.

There is still argument as to whether the short-lived occupation of presidency was a token action to press Yala's claim to be Guinea-Bissau's legitimate and democratically elected head of state, despite his overthrow by the army two years ago, or a failed attempt to topple the present government.

Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior, whose PAIGC party won parliamentary elections in March last year, was quick to accuse Yala of attempting to stage a coup. However, the government has not so far brought charges against him and he has been allowed to campaign freely.

The third main candidate in the election is Malam Bacai Sanha, the official candidate of the PAIGC. A former speaker of parliament, Bacai Sanha was installed by the army as interim president in 1999 following the overthrow of Vieira.

He supervised the holding of presidential elections a few months later that brought Yala to power.

Bacai Sanha, who is in his late 50's came a poor second to Yala in that poll after making it to a second round run-off vote.

Second attempt for Bacai Sanha

However, the PAIGC has run a well-organised and strongly financed campaign this time and Bacai Sanha's rallies have attracted large crowds, similar in size to those drawn by Vieira.

However, local journalists covering the campaign have noted that both figures attract thousands of curious bystanders, eager for a few hours' free entertainment, as well as hardcore political supporters. They have warned that large turnouts at such rallies are not necessarily indicative of strong support in a particular area.

Bacai Sanha has been keen to undermine the support which Yala has traditionally received from President Abdoulaye Wade of neighbouring Senegal.

The authorities in Dakar were appeciative of Yala's swift moves to close down the bases of a guerrilla movement seeking independence for Senegal's southern Casamance region, when he came to power five years ago.

Addressing a campaign rally in the northern town of Sao Domingos, close to the main border crossing into Senegal, Bacai Sanha said: "We must build good relations with our neighbours. If I am elected president, I will help Senegal to end the conflict in Casamance through dialogue with those seeking independence."

Sunday's election will be closely scrutinised by western donors who have been bailing out the government of Guinea-Bissau for the past two years and by other African countries who are keen to prevent the tiny nation from dissolving into fresh chaos, a move that would threaten the stability of other states in the region.

Besides the EU, the African Union, the United States and the African Union are also sending observers to the poll. Altogether, about 200 international observers will be spread around the country.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has dispatched former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano as his special representative to see fair play.

According to local law, the official results of the first round of voting must be announced within 10 days. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the two leading candidates will face each other in a second-round run-off vote three weeks later.

Political analysts say it could therefore be early August before the final outcome of the election is known.

[ENDS]

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