Guinea: democracy at last… or not?

On 28 September, Guinea held its first democratic parliamentary vote since the country’s independence from France in 1958. The election was held two years overdue and was due to complete the long-delayed transition back to civilian rule following a 2008 military coup. Indeed, the vote was meant to have been held within six months of the inauguration of President Alpha Conde in 2010, but was delayed many times. The main reason behind those delays were disagreements amongst the main stakeholders hinging on how the poll should be organized (one of the fundamental points of disagreement between the two camps was the electoral register, the opposition suspected of being “inflated” in favor of power in areas considered to be pro-establishment and reduced in areas considered strongholds of the opposition). During these two years, the role of parliament was left to be played by an unelected National Transitional Council. What were in principle political skirmishes turned into deadly tensions that have left behind more than 50 deaths over just the past few months. In the meantime, Guinea has remained crippled by political deadlock, ethnic rivalries and recurring rumours of coup plots. As a matter of fact, and despite the authorities’ intentions and a last-minute UN-brokered deal that allowed the vote to go ahead and calmed opposition fears, the vote-casting took place amid ethnic and political violence.

Violence has accompanied the country for decades. After it gained independence from France in the 1950s, Guinea plunged into political instability and, like pretty much all Sub-Saharan countries, was ruled by a succession of autocratic rulers. After the death of President Lansana Conte, who himself had taken power in a coup 24 years earlier, a new military coup spearheaded by the current head of state took place in December 2008. Mainly because of international pressure and out of an urgent need to instate stability, civilian rule was ushered in 2010, following a transitional period and a presidential election also noted by delays and violence. The scheduled date of the vote, unfortunately, marked the fourth anniversary of a massacre of about 150 pro-democracy demonstrators in the capital Conakry after rallying against the military junta then in power.

In spite of being a resource-rich country, Guinea is one of the poorest countries in the region, and many expected a smooth process to help the state in its vital quest to attract investors, as many dropped away from the mining sector due to both the political unrest and the collapse of metal prices during the financial crisis. “These elections will allow us to emerge from a chaotic five-year transition” said the President days before the poll. If the vote is successful, it will also free up 140 million euros in aid from the European Union.

More than 1,700 candidates competed for 114 seats in Guinea’s National Assembly. The electoral process was seized for several months by a standoff between the two sides, which sometimes led to demonstrations marred by deadly violence. Despite the multitude of candidates, the election came down essentially to a confrontation between the two coalitions around the Rally of the People of Guinea of President Condé and the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea. Alpha Conde descends from the Malinke ethnic group, which is believed to be Guinea’s second-largest. Conde leads the Rally of the Guinean People, a party that claims to support socialism and has been accused several times of authoritarian tendencies. Conde’s main rival was Cellou Dalein Diallo, descending from the Fullani group (the group makes up approximately 40% of the population) and heading the centrist liberal Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea. The most ironic thing is that Cellou Dalein Diallo served under general Conte’s 1984-2008 regime and that renowned opposition leader Sidya Toure is a former prime minister.

No party was in principle expected to win an outright majority, and most pundits believed coalition negotiations were most likely to be needed following the poll. And that is one of the reasons why the opposition has accused both Conde’s camp and the Independent National Electoral Commission (another key area of disagreement between the incumbent and the opposition) of rigging the vote. Most claims point to the existence of a string of irregularities, including ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and minors casting ballots. The President however dismissed the accusations of electoral fraud and the government continued to disallow protests against the election results. Moreover, diplomats and UN representatives observing the elections raised concerns over “irregularities”, warning that some results from the poll may have been skewed.

Regardless of the accusations of vote-rigging, Conde’s party, which had already claimed it would be able to command a majority in the national assembly, won the poll, even though by a narrow margin. The provisional results showed that Alpha Conde’s Rally of the Guinean People party obtained 53 seats and its small party allies 7 in the elections held last month. The opposition UFDG party, led by Conde’s rival, Cellou Dalein Diallo, won 37 seats while former Prime Minister Sidya Toure’s UFR secured 10 seats. Smaller parties won the remaining seats.
Tensions had been rising further as the Electoral Commission has been worryingly slow to announce the results, blamed by Conde on a manual tally. Boosting calls by opposition leaders for the election to be annulled, international observers – including UN special representative Said Djinnit as well as representatives from the European Union, ECOWAS, the US and France – confirmed the polls in Guinea had been marred by irregularities. Many of them said the flaws were serious enough to affect the credibility of the vote. Apparently, the eight constituencies affected by the alleged irregularities were natural strongholds of the Union of Republican Forces. On 30 September, opposition leaders announced that they will not accept any other result. On 3 October, they announced their representatives’ withdrawal from the national tally commission. The next day, they asked for the cancellation of the polls, adding that all legal means of protest were on the table.

What is at stake is no longer the mere credibility of the electoral process, but peace and stability in Guinea. Minor incidents have been meanwhile occurring, security is being tightened in the main cities, where people are reportedly getting weapons to defend themselves in case of violence. Expressing fears of a coup could be the regime has arrested civilians, military officers and foreigners. In Guinea, where ethnicity is a significant factor influencing voters, there is a real risk of violence. Taking into account that the main problem is that this poll has been held without reaching a meaningful agreement on the rules of the game, restoring trust in the electoral system sets itself as a key decision in order to defuse tensions. In 2010 Presidential elections, both the procedure and the results were obscured by moot quick fixes. These won’t be accepted again by Guinea’s people, who should be offered adequate, long-term answers before the 2015 presidential election.

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