Alpha Conde, one of Guinea's most prominent opposition leaders, has said his Rally of the Guinean People (RPG) party will boycott municipal elections due later this year, but the opposition coalition to which it belongs signalled on Wednesday that it still planned to take part in the poll.
Guinea faces a looming political crisis as President Lansana Conte becomes increasingly ill and the municipal elections are widely seen as a litmus test of the government's willingness to introduce democratic reforms that would encourage a peaceful transition of power once he finally quits the scene.
Conde said on Monday at his first press conference since returning from two years of self-imposed exile that the RPG would boycott the election, for which no date has so far been set.
But Mamadou Ba, the chairman of the six-party Republican Front for Democratic Change (FRAD) opposition alliance, said FRAD as a whole still favoured taking part in the poll.
“FRAD’s stance is that parties in the coalition will go to the polls, although we’ve also left open the option for individual parties to make a choice as to whether to participate or not,” he told IRIN.
“Alpha might have decided on the latter option, but this is not to say that there’s a split in FRAD,” he added.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report on Guinea last month that the municipal elections would be a key test of long promised democratic reform.
President Conte, who seized power in a 1984 coup, has allowed opposition parties to exist since 1992, but they and Guinea's independent media have been kept on a short leash ever since.
In a further comment that appeared to break ranks with the opposition coalition, Conde said that he did not support FRAD proposals for a transitional government that included military representatives.
“The army has their own duty of defending the nation and that should be that,” said Conde who spent almost two years in prison for plotting to overthrow the government after he challenged Conte unsuccessfully in the 1998 presidential elections.
“It’s the ordinary people who feel the pinch most, and they should be part of the decision making process when it comes,” said Conde, who returned to Guinea two weeks ago.
Ba again played down divergences between Conde and the rest of FRAD.
“We have not said that we will support the military. What we have said is that we will approve a consensus candidate approved by all the stakeholders,” he told IRIN.
Diplomats say Guinea's weak and divided opposition is split along personal and ethnic lines, making it difficult for FRAD to present itself as a credible alternative to Conte.
The RPG, for example, draws most of its support from Conde's Malinke (Mandingo) people, one of the three main ethnic groups that comprise Guinea's eight million population.
Founding president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, was also a Malinke but current head of state is from a minority ethnic group, the Soussou.
Guinea is in the midst of an increasingly severe economic crisis, with inflation spiralling out of control and food prices soaring beyond the means of many people lucky enough to have a job.
At the same time, the government is under pressure from the donors to implement a host of reforms that include the setting up of an independent electoral commission, the legalisation of private radio and television stations and opposition access to the state media.
The European Union, traditionally Guinea's principal donor, has been withholding more than US $100 million of aid because the government has failed to implement political and economic reforms to improve governance in this poor and notoriously corrupt country.
President Conte, a chain-smoking former army colonel who suffers from diabetes and suspected heart disease, can no longer walk unassisted and the magazine Jeune Afrique, reported in May that he was frequently slipping into a diabetic coma for hours at a time.
The report, confirmed by government insiders, gave rise to increased speculation of an early change at the top.
Though Guinea boasts the world’s third largest deposits of bauxite, the main source of aluminium, the majority of its people live on less than a dollar a day.