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GUINEA-BISSAU: Main opposition party picks Kumba Yala as presidential candidate

Bissau, 28 March 2005 (IRIN) - The main opposition party in Guinea-Bissau has chosen former president Kumba Yala as its candidate in presidential elections due on 19 June, even though Yala was banned from politics for five years following his overthrow in a bloodless 2003 coup.

Yala, who was first elected president with a landslide majority in 2000, was overwhelmingly chosen as the presidential candidate of his Social Renovation Party (PRS) at a meeting of the party's national council on Saturday.

Meanwhile, support is growing for another controversial figure, exiled former president Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira, to stand as a rival presidential candidate in the June election.

Supporters of Vieira, who ruled from 1980 until his overthrow during the 1998/99 civil war, said 30,000 people had signed a petition urging him to return from exile in Portugal to stand for the presidency.

Diplomats in West Africa said they feared Guinea-Bissau could be in for a turbulent time as the former Portuguese colony of 1.3 million people heads towards the poll, which is due to complete a phased return to constitutional government.

One diplomat who recently spent several weeks in Guinea-Bissau, noted rumours that armed groups representing rival ethnic groups had been formed.

However, such groups have yet to declare their existence publicly and there have been no incidents of political violence since an army mutiny last October, which led to the assassination of General Verissimo Correia Seabra, the chief of staff of the armed forces.

Correia Seabra had overthrown Yala a year earlier after the then president had dismissed parliament and repeatedly missed his own deadlines for holding fresh elections.

By the time Yala was removed from power three years into his elected term, his government was virtually bankrupt. Most soldiers, teachers, medical staff and civil servants had been unpaid for several months and his overthrow was greeted with widespread relief by the population.

However, Yala and his party, the PRS, retain a strong following among the Balanta, Guinea-Bissau's largest ethnic group. It accounts for 35 percent of the population and forms the backbone of the army.

Shortly after seizing power, Corriea Seabra handed over power to a broad-based civilian transition government, which drew up a charter for returning Guinea-Bissau to full democracy within two years.

This September 2003 charter, which was signed by the PRS leadership, banned Yala from returning to active politics or seeking re-election for five years.

The PRS leadership has now done a U-turn by endorsing Yala as its official presidential candidate, but it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court, which must endorse all candidates, will allow him to stand.

Guinea-Bissau's return to consitutional government began with parliamentary elections in March 2003.

These were won by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the former liberation movement which fought a guerrilla war against Portuguese colonial rule and took over the reins of power at independence in 1974.

The PAIGC, which lacks an outright majority in the single-chamber legislature, went on to form Guinea-Bissau's current government, which is headed by Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior.

The party has chosen Malam Bacai Sanha, who served as interim vice-president between 1999 and 2000, as its own presidential candidate. But Bacai Sanha came a poor second to Yala in the 2000 presidential election, winning 28 percent of the vote, compared to Yala's 72 percent.

His chances of doing better this time round may be hampered if Vieira, an army general who came to power in a 1981 coup, also decides to run for president.

Vieira, who belongs to the small Papel ethnic group, took over the PAIGC leadership following his seizure of power and ruled Guinea-Bissau for the next 19 years. Many PAIGC leaders and businessmen and even prominent figures in several small opposition parties have voiced their support for his return to power.

Like Yala, Vieira is also formally banned from taking part in politics.

However, the bans on both men could be lifted if a controversial amnesty law that is currently before parliament is approved when it comes up for discussion in May.

The draft law would grant a blanket amnesty to all those accused of abuse of power, including corruption, illegal detention, torture and extra-judicial killings, from November 1980, when Vieira seized power, until October 2004, when Correia Seabra was killed by unidentified supporters of the present military high command.

Vieira has said he would like to return to Guinea-Bissau before the June elections, but has not yet made clear whether he intends to be a presidential candidate.

However, Yala, who came to power last time on a platform of national reconciliation, said on Saturday shortly after he was acclaimed as the official candidate of the PRS, that he expected Vieira to be his main opponent.

"My only opponent in the presidential race is General Nino Vieira," Yala said, brushing aside the PAIGC's Bacai Sanha and Francisco Fadul, the official candidate of the United Social Democrat Party (PUSD).

Theme (s): Conflict, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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