Guinea’s parliamentary election, to be held later this month, will establish a legislative assembly after almost five years without one, and formally complete a transition to civilian rule. But the long-overdue poll is fraught with political and ethnic tensions that analysts say hinder reforms and progress.
The legislative election was supposed to be held six months after the 2010 presidential poll that brought President Alpha Condé to power, but after protracted disputes between the government and the opposition, Guineans will instead vote on 24 September of this year.
Guineans remain sharply divided over Condé’s win in the run-off against opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, and supporters on each side see the legislative poll as an occasion to demonstrate their party’s political weight. Many political leaders who backed Condé in 2010 are now supporting the opposition in the parliamentary election.
“The 2010 presidential election was difficult for many Guineans to swallow, and it still rankles,” said Alpha Amadou Bano Barry, a sociologist in the capital, Conakry. “A large part of the opposition is looking to show that Condé’s victory was tainted; the ruling party wants to show it won with wide support from the people. The upcoming race is [either] a certification or invalidation of that presidential poll.”
It also sets the stage for the 2015 presidential election, a Western diplomat told IRIN. “I think President Condé is less worried about the balance in parliament than about the signal this election gives for 2015,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
The diplomat said he hopes the outcome of the parliamentary election might shift the balance of power, not only between the ruling party and the opposition but also within Condé’s government.
“With Condé, Guinea ended up with a bloated government full of political cronies who were everything but technocrats,” he said. “I hope that after the election the president will be able to replace some of those with competent technocrats, but I'm sceptical about his capacity to meaningfully change his government,” said the diplomat.
The country’s history of corruption and bad governance is one of the main reasons that Guinea remains underdeveloped despite its massive mineral wealth, say observers. President Condé has made some important macroeconomic reforms, but the system he inherited was badly broken and improvements in people’s lives still seem far off. Poverty is on the rise, roads and other infrastructure are abysmal, and basic services like electricity and clean drinking water are scarce.
Condé has also been accused of promoting members of his ethnic group, the Malinké, over those of different ethnicities.
Finally, a parliament
Aside from finally completing the transition to civilian rule, the presence of a parliament will reassure investors, says UN Resident Coordinator Anthony Ohemeng-Boamah. “In order to build confidence necessary for domestic and foreign investors to put their money into the society, we need to hold these elections.”
The European Union has withheld over 100 million euros in development funds pending the completion of a transparent and fair legislative election.
Guineans also say it is important that the country move on from a situation where the executive runs all the national affairs.
“I will certainly vote,” said Conakry resident Sadou Bah. “I want the opposition to win. If we get a parliament of the ruling party, one that will rubber-stamp anything the president wants to do, the country’s done for.”
But a university student and Condé supporter, who gave his name only as Ibrahima, countered: “If the opposition wins parliament, it’s over for Alpha. No matter what he proposes, even if it would be good for the country, the Peulh [ethnic group affiliated with main opposition party] in parliament will oppose it.”
Guinea’s ethnic question
In this fledgling democracy, elections invariably bring ethnicity to the fore.
Guinea is home to at least 24 ethnic groups, the two largest being the Peulh and the Malinké. The groups generally co-exist peacefully, often inter-marrying, and most Guineans have mixed ancestry. But Conakry residents say ethnic tensions have been increasing steadily since the 2010 election.
The ethnic issues are all about access to resources, says sociologist Barry. “Two Guineans of different ethnic groups will not come to blows simply because they’re of different ethnicities. A Guinean will not refuse to marry another because he or she is of a different ethnic group… [Ethnic tensions] are linked solely to control of and access to public resources”, a situation linked to the absence of public safety nets.
Resources, opportunity and even basic services are generally accessible only through personal connections, he said. “Here, support and solidarity - as in social security - are a function not of the state but of the family and, by extension, ethnic group. In such conditions, how can you convince people that ethnicity is not important when it comes to access to power and resources?”
University student Aboubacar Sayon Fofana said poverty is a major factor in politics: For democracy to work and not be burdened by ethnic hostilities, he said, people must be autonomous. “When 10 people in a family count on one person to eat daily, of course those 10 people are going to vote with their provider.”
“Ethnocentrism in Guinea stems from the fact that there is no democracy, no equality,” said Thierno Madjou Sow, long-time human rights advocate and law professor in Guinea.
The government is failing in its role of fostering social and national cohesion, he said. “In Guinea, we don’t yet have a nation to speak of - it’s a nation in the making.”
Yacouba Barry, a vendor in Conakry, says people are beginning to see that no matter which ethnic group is in power, “the little people” are not taken into account. “Still, people do see advantages to having someone of their own group in power,” he explained, noting that simply obtaining certain government papers or handling administrative issues is more difficult when one’s ethnic group is affiliated with the opposition.
Whatever their political loyalties, Guineans IRIN spoke to agreed that politicians on all sides played the ethnic card. “We have a political class that looks to exploit the differences among people to ensure a captive electorate,” said sociologist Barry.