Guinea-Bissau’s festive campaign motorcades have collided with the dread many voters are feeling ahead of presidential polls, which unfold in the coup-ridden West African country on Sunday.
Sweeping through the capital Bissau during the campaign, the convoys blare the names of the candidates through loudspeakers, while giant election banners adorn buildings.
“The problems are going to start after the election. It’s a very bad time that frightens me,” said Lino Correa, 20, a high-school student.
Guinea-Bissau has suffered four coups and a string of political assassinations since independence from Portugal in 1974.
The latest coup, in 2012, occurred during presidential elections.
But health, safety and the dire state of the small country’s economy were also top concerns for voters interviewed by AFP.
The 12 candidates — all men — contesting the election face a country mired in poverty and endemic corruption.
Cashews are the top official export, but Guinea-Bissau has become better known for its drugs trade, with Latin American cocaine runners exploiting its instability to use it as a transit point to Europe.
“I earn 30,000 CFA francs ($50, 45 euros) a day,” said taxi driver Thierno Malang Gomis, 35.
He said he had only 3,500 francs ($6, five euros) left after paying for fuel and servicing his car loan.
“If it’s not the cashew-harvest period, it’s really difficult,” Malang Gomis said.
More than a third of Guinea-Bissau’s 1.8 million inhabitants live on less than $1 (90 euro cents) a day. And the elites, according to experts, have systematically stolen the country’s wealth.
Incumbent president Jose Mario Vaz, 62, has vowed to turn the tables on the old order if he wins.
Under the shade of mango and cheese trees in a suburb of Bissau on Wednesday, he said he would refuse to “play the game of a little group of people who plunder and steal public funds”.
Vaz is the first president in 25 years to complete his mandate without being ousted or assassinated.
His longtime political rival Domingos Simoes Pereira, who is also running, has made similar pledges.
Sitting inside the banner-draped party headquarters, Dan Yala, one of his campaign staffers, said Pereira would “look after vulnerable populations”, pay unpaid public workers and attract investors.
A recent report from the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank, noted that the losing presidential candidates risk not only their political careers, but “being pursued for economic crimes they may have committed”.
– Political deadlock –
Many of the current electoral favourites have been key players in the near-permanent political crisis that has gripped Guinea-Bissau since 2015.
Vaz came to power in 2014 to hopes that he would restore stability to the country.
However, his sacking of then prime minister Pereira in 2015 precipitated years of clashes with the parliament over his choices to lead the government. A political deadlock has persisted ever since.
Pereira heads the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which won parliamentary elections in March. The PAIGC began as a Marxist-Leninist movement that fought for an end to Portuguese rule.
Vaz is running for president as an independent after being expelled from the party.
Carlos Gomes Junior — a former prime minister ousted in the 2012 coup — is also running.
Both Vaz and Pereira have pledged to respect the election results. However, the incumbent president has said he would only do so “if it is transparent and without tampering”.
Days before the election, concerns about electoral irregularities are widespread. Polling stations have yet to receive voter lists, raising the possibility of fraud.
Neighbouring West African states, traditional mediators in Guinea-Bissau’s internecine politics, have sent in electoral observers.
Even a peaceful transfer of power may not break the deadlock if a candidate from outside the PAIGC wins and is again at loggerheads with the majority party in parliament.
Some 700,000 voters are registered for Sunday, with indicative results due early next week.
A second round run-off — planned for December 29 — is considered highly likely due to the number of candidates.