Elections fears as unity government splits

Experts fear parliamentary elections scheduled for November may be destabilised following the withdrawal of the opposition African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) from the national unity government on 25 July.

The PAIGC announced its withdrawal after Prime Minister Marthinho Ndafa Kabi sacked four high-ranking officials, including the directors of customs, taxes, the treasury and the treasurer of public finances, without first informing the PAIGC or other coalition members.

"We are concerned at the instability this [withdrawal] could cause. It is just three months to elections," said Shola Omoregie, Special representative to the UN Secretary General and head of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS).

The coalition government was formed through a national stability pact which was signed by the country's three leading political parties, the PAIGC, the Party for Social Reform (PRS), and the United Social Democratic Party (PUSD), in March 2007 in a bid to herald a period of stability in the country following several decades of bloody coups and uprisings. See time-line

Members of the international community were encouraged by this pact to engage more directly in building peace and stability in Guinea-Bissau. Other risks to instability include the military's strong hold over politics, the tendency for the individual agendas of the political elite to dictate policy, and the widening net of criminal networks which have turned Guinea-Bissau into a major drug trafficking hub and risk criminalising individuals in government, according to a July 2008 report by the International Crisis Group.

The attorney general Luis Manuel Cabral told the AFP news agency he has received death threats over his investigations into a drugs haul on 12 July, according to a BBC report.

Fears for elections

Elections are scheduled to be held on 16 November 2008 and despite a gap of between US$3-5 million to fund them, according to international donors, the government is "70 percent on its way" to being ready to hold legislative elections, according to experts, with 72 percent of voters already registered.

But Jamel Handem, president of a network of non-governmental organisations in Bissau, worries the PAIGC’s actions, which he sees as a pre-election power-wielding tactic, could destabilise the elections, depending on how the President reacts.

"This action now opens up the path to President Joao Bernardo Vieira to dissolve this government and appoint a new one. Everything depends on the peaceful resolution of this problem. If the authorities fail to find one, the holding of elections will be compromised."

Former Prime Minister and member of the PRS Antonio Artur Sanha, concurred. "If the PAIGC does not reconsider its decision the government of Prime Minister Ndafa Kabi could fall," he said.

International support for reforms

UN Special Representative Omoregie also worries that the events could compromise the work of international actors working to promote stability in the country.

"The formation of government and the dismissal of employees is the [government's] business, but we are concerned that… these developments should not affect international engagement in building peace and stability in the country."

The UN set up a peacebuilding office in Guinea-Bissau (UNOGBIS), to report directly to the UN Security Council. Last week Omoregie announced UNOGBIS's plans to support civic education activities in the run-up to the elections, to boost military morale by rehabilitating badly debilitated army barracks, to help build prisons in the country and to set up a youth employment scheme.

A high-level team from the European Council and part of the European Security and Defence Policy is currently working with the government to map out a major security sector reform project to try to reform the military, judiciary and police. Part of this involves a mass demobilisation effort in the military and police.

But such programmes require the buy-in and participation of all parties in the unity government, a member of the ESDP team told IRIN.

The International Monetary Fund, after withdrawing from Guinea-Bissau in 2001, resumed investment activities in January 2008 but this investment is conditional on the government showing a willingness to adopt more transparent decision-making, according to an international diplomat.

Such investment is vital in Guinea-Bissau given that long-term political instability has crippled its institutions and infrastructure, leaving weak governing capacity and in some ministries empty government coffers, which allow little left over for development once salaries are paid. The majority of the country's citizens do not have access to clean water, adequate sanitation facilities, or electricity, and many of the country's roads are near to impassable.

However, despite fears of instability, in a more promising move, on 29 July the IMF released US$2.9 million in post-conflict emergency assistance to promote economic development in the country.

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