Guinea-Bissau staged watershed presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday aimed at ushering in a new era of stability in a country plagued by drugs and upended by a military coup.

The polls cap four decades of chaos marked by a series of mutinies since the west African nation won independence from Portugal, and commentators have called for the new regime to finally bring the military into line.

The impoverished country has been stagnating for two years under the rule of a transitional government backed by the all-powerful military, with the economy anaemic and cocaine trafficking fuelling corruption.

Interim president Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, who is not a candidate, told AFP he “hoped and wished to turn the page to stability”.

“The problem of Guinea-Bissau is political and military, and everyone must work together in mutual respect,” he said.

There had been no reports of violence or major protests as polling stations began to close after 11 hours of voting at 6pm (1800 GMT), with some centres allowed to stay open an extra half hour to ensure everyone was able to vote.

Chronic volatility has fanned poverty in the country of 1.6 million with few resources other than cashew nuts and fish, attracting South American drug cartels which have turned it into a hub of cocaine trafficking for west Africa.

The drug trade and the money it generates have corrupted all of Guinea-Bissau’s public institutions, in particular the armed forces, whose senior officers are accused of involvement in trafficking.

The United States charged 2012 coup leader Antonio Indjai in April last year with drug trafficking and seeking to sell arms to Colombian FARC rebels, while former navy chief Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto was arrested by US federal agents in waters off west Africa last year as he was allegedly about to receive a large shipment of cocaine.

“The new government will have to call into question the privileges enjoyed by senior military officers and carefully resume the security sector reforms that prompted the army to stage the coup,” said Vincent Foucher, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Thirteen politicians have been seeking to convince the people of Guinea-Bissau that they can stand up to the generals and reform the armed forces as the new president, while 15 parties are fielding candidates for parliamentary seats.

Among the presidential hopefuls are political heavyweights such as former finance minister Jose Mario Vaz, and Abel Incada, a member of the Party for Social Renewal of former president Kumba Yala, who died last week.

The dark horse, however, could be 50-year-old independent candidate Paulo Gomes, an unusual proposition in a political landscape hitherto dominated by political grandees who made their names during the war of independence.

A gifted economist who has spent most of his life working abroad, including as the leader of the World Bank’s sub-Saharan Africa division, he believes he has the know-how to begin to turn around the country’s fortunes.

As he cast his vote in Bissau, he said his country was “bruised” and needed to be put “back on track”.

“Even if we lose, we have to roll up our sleeves and help the new government,” he added.

– ‘Not immune to another coup’ –

Voting looked healthy in the capital Bissau, with many turning up well ahead of the 7:00am opening to book their places in the queue.

At one voting station, housewife Hawa Sonko, 42, said she had performed “a simple but very important act”.

“My vote is like a rope that is going to help my country out of the hole. Guinea-Bissau has suffered since 2012,” she told AFP.

The much-delayed elections are the first since Indjai, a former army chief of staff, agreed in May 2012 to hand power to a civilian transitional regime headed by Nhamadjo.

Hoster Garba, a 53-year-old civil servant, said she hoped her vote meant “participation for a change in the system and the men who govern us”.

“But this vote does not make us immune from another coup, especially if the international community turns its back on us,” she added.

Although campaigning ended on Friday with no major security incident, polling is being supervised by 4,200 Bissau-Guinean and west African soldiers.

More than 500 international observers will decide whether voting has been free and credible.

Guinea-Bissau is ranked 177th out of 187 in the UN human development index, and two-thirds of the population are living below the poverty line.

The ICG has urged donors to be ready after the election to help the government pay immediate expenses, including public sector wages, provide long-term funding for development programmes and push for improved economic governance.

If no clear winner emerges, a presidential runoff is scheduled on May 18.


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