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Last Updated: Monday, 20 June 2005, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
Make or break poll in Guinea-Bissau
By Ebrima Sillah
BBC News, Bissau

The people of Guinea-Bissau are hoping that Sunday's elections will be seized as a golden opportunity to reverse the fortunes of a country which has had civil wars, mutinies and military coups since its independence from Portugal in 1974.

Supporters of Malam Bacai Sanha
Mr Sanha is backed by those involved in the 1970s war of independence
In the build-up to polling day, the capital, Bissau, was gripped with election fever. Its streets were decorated with the different colours of the rival parties, hoping to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Many people are worried about possible trouble after the winner is declared from this intense campaign.

But there is a strong determination on the part of ordinary people to elect a new leader who will be able to break with the country's troubled past.

Seventeen candidates are vying for the presidency. But three main candidates are tipped as the frontrunners in the race to install a new democratic leadership.

They are all old-timers: the Social Renovation Party (PRS) leader Kumba Yala who was overthrown in 2003, independent candidate Nino Vieira who ruled Guinea-Bissau for 18 years until he was ousted by the armed forces in 1998 and Malam Bacai Sanha who became interim president when Mr Vieira was overthrown.

Past glories

Mr Sanha is the candidate of the oldest political party in the country - the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) that led the war of independence against Portugal.

FRONT RUNNERS
Kumba Yala PRS. Support base: Balanta ethnic group
Nino Vieira Independent. Support base: Urban youth
Malam Bacai Sanha PAIGC. Support base: Veterans of 1970s war of independence
The three main candidates have put up impressive but expensive campaigns.

The PAIGC is still relying on its past glories to mobilise supporters.

Many people who either witnessed or took part in the independence war, still identify themselves with the PAIGC.

The party was accompanied on its campaign by musical bands and traditional singers who sing songs reserved for heroes and fighters.

The traditional songs have now been transformed to suit PAIGC's political campaign.

"This election will mark a milestone for us the people to once again recognise the important role Malam [Sanha] and PAIGC have played in the independence of Guinea-Bissau," said an elderly man accompanying the PAIGC on their campaign tour.

Salaries paid

Nino Vieira's campaign targeted unemployed youths in towns and cities. He was accompanied on his campaign by over 100 vehicles.

"When Nino was in power, Bissau was relatively calm and salaries were paid regularly but when Vieira was ousted in civil war, everything went from bad to worse," said one of his young supporters.

Supporters of former President Nino Vieira
Mr Vieira's supporters say he can stand up to the army
"So we have no choice but to go back to Nino to bring back normalcy in Bissau. Also Vieira being a retired army general himself, is the only one among the candidates who can stand up to the army here to ensure that they don't interfere in politics."

Although Mr Vieira has his doubters, wherever he goes, the former president keeps talking about the need for peace and stability in Guinea-Bissau.

He describes himself as a gift of God to the people of Guinea-Bissau who has come back to once again lead them to development and prosperity.

Bitter

Kumba Yala's campaign was mainly concentrated in the rural areas where the PRS still garners much support, especially among the Balanta ethnic group. He did not hold any rallies in the capital.

Most of Mr Yala's supporters are still bitter about his overthrow in 2003.

Former President Kumba Yala
Mr Yala is criticised for playing the ethnic card
"We know that there was an international conspiracy against Kumba because when he was ousted it was the [regional body] Ecowas leaders and some members of the international community, who told him to voluntarily resign from power to avoid chaos in the country," one of his supporters remarked.

"Now that he is allowed to take part in this election we will show to the whole world that our man is still the most popular choice of the people of Guinea Bissau."

Critics of the three main candidates blasted their campaign strategy to win support as dangerous for Guinea-Bissau.

For example, the opponents of Kumba Yala are accusing him of using ethnicity to win support.

The Muslim Mr Sanha is being accused of playing the Islamic card, which could be significant as Muslims form about 40% of the population of Guinea-Bissau.

While Mr Vieira is being accused of instilling fear in the minds of the voters.

Mr Vieira ruled Guinea-Bissau with an iron fist until he was ousted in a bloody civil war in 1998 and his opponents say he may seek revenge on the people who overthrew him if he is elected.

Tight race

The few democratic elections held here have done little to end poverty, which has always been a recipe for the military to intervene in politics.

But optimists hope that this time, things will be different.

For a candidate to be declared winner, he or she has to poll 50% of the total number of votes cast.

Political pundits here believe that there may not be an outright winner in the first round of the polls.

But whoever wins the forthcoming election will have the huge task of not only uniting a deeply divided people but also trying to act quickly to deliver on the promises of job creation and economic prosperity.


SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Guinea-Bissau poll
17 Jun 05 |  Africa
Bissau government promises calm
16 May 05 |  Africa
Amnesty for Bissau coup-makers
12 Apr 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Guinea-Bissau
17 Jul 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Guinea-Bissau
06 Apr 04 |  Country profiles


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