Guinea holds successful elections after six-year delay

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Though we don’t have any election results yet, Guinea successfully held long-delayed parliamentary elections on Saturday, which in itself marks a milestone in the west African country’s democratic development as the first direct parliamentary vote since independence from France in 1958.

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Originally scheduled to be held in June 2007, and then allegedly to be held following Guinea’s first direct presidential election in 2010, the elections were rescheduled time after time until earlier this summer, when the government of Guinea’s president Alpha Condé finally agreed to a UN-brokered deal with supporters of his rival Cellou Dalein Diallo (pictured above) to provide for a peaceful, free and fair set of elections — the vote will clear the way for around $200 million in financial aid from the European Union.

Politics in Guinea, a country of just 10.25 million, largely falls on ethnic lines.  Condé counts on the Malinke ethnic group (around 30% of Guinea’s population) in the northeast to support his Rassemblement du Peuple Guinéen (RPG, Rally for the Guinean People). Diallo counts on the Fula group (around 40% of the population) in the northeast to support his Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG, Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea), with Condé consolidating support from among the coastal Susu group (around 20%) in the 2010 election to defeat Diallo.

This weekend’s vote to determine the members of Guinea’s Assemblée nationale (National Assembly) will set the stage for the next direct presidential election scheduled to take place in 2015.

Despite relative mineral wealth — chiefly through bauxite, an aluminum ore that constitutes over three-fifths of Guinean exports — the country’s GDP per capita is almost one-half of neighboring Senegal’s.  There are a lot of historical and institutional reasons for that disparity — Guinea was the only country in west Africa to elect independence in 1958, which severed the links between Guinea and France, even after African independence became a fait accompli two years later.  That meant that Guinea took a turn toward an authoritarian, socialist economy under the aegis of the Soviet Union through the Cold War under its first post-independence leader Ahmed Sékou Touré.  Economic reform and a somewhat less harsh political environment under the rule of Lansana Conté between 1984 and 2008 improved the lives of Guineans, but the country lags behind its potential output.

Conté’s death allowed Guinea’s turn, after a half century, toward democracy, though it’s been a difficult transition.  Saturday was the four-year anniversary of the killing of around 150 pro-democracy activists in Conakry, the Guinean capital, and around 50 activists have been killed in the leadup to Saturday’s elections.

Though Condé fought for years to bring democracy to Guinea, Diallo has challenged his government for ruling the country as an autocrat, and there are fears that the progress, however fragile, of the past four years may already be unraveling, especially if the government and opposition cannot agree whether the election was fundamentally fair, exacerbating historic ethnic tension between the Fula and Malinke groups: 

However, the perception among ordinary Guineans is that both those in power and opposition politicians stand accused of shady economic deals. Impunity for past crimes is in fact an issue that should be dealt with carefully to prevent the impression of a witch-hunt against certain political groups. In this context, there seems to be a real fear among the opposition and those in the ruling coalition that a new National Assembly might pass laws that target key individuals for economic and political crimes committed in the past.

Sadly, these disputes have kept Guinea from jumpstarting much-needed economic reforms. Poverty remains a huge problem and often those masses seen at opposition rallies are there in protest at the rising cost of living, joblessness or power cuts, rather than because they are inspired by the ideological stance of their political leaders. What has been referred to as ‘the instrumentalisation of poverty’ and the personalisation of politics in Guinea is in fact what is preventing the country from making a necessary and urgent transition to peace and political stability.

Results are expected by next Wednesday, October 2.  The 114 deputies of the National Assembly will be elected with a mixed system — 38 selected in single-member districts on a first-past-the-post basis and 76 deputies are chosen pursuant to party-list proportional representation.  The last elections for the National Assembly were held in 2002 during the Conté regime.

Photo credit to Aminata.com.

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