Guinea’s long-awaited local elections – A step backwards in its troubled electoral history?

Guest post by Ulrike Rodgers, Senior Program Manager, National Democratic Institute (NDI)

On February 4, the nearly six million Guinean registered voters were called to elect 7012 local councilors in 342 districts (communes). Nearly 30,000 candidates, including independents, ran for local office. After 13 years in the making, the elections were to be an important milestone on Guinea’s bumpy road to democracy that began only in 2010 with its first multiparty presidential election since independence from France 52 years earlier. However, an exhausted electorate, frustrated by years of political wrangling marked by spikes of deadly violence, and a lack of economic and social progress, responded less enthusiastically to the call to elect their local leaders than in previous elections. Just under 54 pour cent of voters turned out, according to the National Independent Electoral Commission’s (CENI) estimates, a decline from over 64 percent in the September 2013 legislative elections, and over 68 percent for the 2015 presidential elections. The ruling party failed to win an overall majority of councilor seats and lost the capital Conakry to opposition parties and independent candidates. Moreover, doubts remain over the integrity of the election, mainly linked to allegations of irregularities after polling stations closed.

Guinea’s troubled electoral history is rooted in the decades of autocratic single-party rule, marked by political violence and military coups, which stunted the development of a political culture striving for consensus over confrontation. Guinea began engaging in democratic reforms nearly 20 years after many other African countries. The first round of the 2010 elections resulted in a runoff between former opposition leaders Alpha Condé, briefly jailed by then-president Lansana Conté in 2001, and Cellou Diallo Dalein, Conté’s prime minister from 2004 to 2006.  The second round was postponed for months because of deadly violence between supporters of the two finalists. Condé won the second round with 52.52 percent in October 2010, which surprised many as Dalein had led after the first round with nearly 44 percent, trailed by Condé with 18.25 percent. To this day, many of Dalein’s supporters feel that the election was stolen from them. These resentments flared up violently in the lead up to parliamentary elections in September 2013 and led to over 100 dead. The elections were postponed several times until the United Nations brokered an agreement between government and opposition. The international community supported a large international and domestic contingent of election observers to enhance trust in the electoral process and prevent violence. Domestic and international non-partisan observers as well as Guinea’s courts deemed the elections legitimate, but the opposition alleged that the government had manipulated voter lists and misused government resources to fuel its campaign.

President Condé was re-elected for his second term in October 2015 in the first round with 58 percent of the vote. Observers deployed again in large numbers.  Despite serious deficiencies noted during the electoral campaign and shortcomings on election day, domestic observation groups and the European Union, in its post-election report, concluded that the process was overall valid.

Local elections were to be held shortly afterwards, but were postponed several times due to controversies over the CENI’s impartiality, the integrity of the voter registry, lack of resources, and because of the Ebola epidemic that ravaged the country from 2014 to 2016. Guineans had elected their local leaders for the last time in 2005. That year, to quell any political opposition, and risks of instability seeping in from Guinea’s war-torn neighbors, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Lansana Conté organized local elections to consolidate his party’s control of local government, which it won handily with over 80 percent of the votes. In the years prior, his regime had violently cracked down on Guinea’s historically powerful traditional and ethnic local leaders, often stoking ethnic tensions to its advantage.  To this day, many Guinean families harbor deep-rooted suspicions against the central government in Conakry; ethnic divisions remain prevalent across the country.

In the absence of local elections, Guinea’s local governments were run by central government appointees (Délégations spéciales) from 2010 to 2016 after their mandate had expired in 2010. Rejected by the opposition as illegitimate, they were a source of recurring political tensions. In October 2016, government and opposition reached an agreement to replace them with interim delegates appointed proportionally according to the votes obtained by each party in the legislative elections, while preparing for local elections.

The local election campaign opened in early January, 2018. Many described the atmosphere in the capital Conakry as muted, whereas the regions reported an unusually high influx of political personalities, mainly belonging to the ruling coalition. Violent incidents remained rare in the lead up to February 4. Election day was also largely calm. Domestic observer groups commended the Guinean people on a peaceful election, whilst deploring organizational shortcomings such as a lack of voting materials and late openings of polling stations. However, as the votes were still being counted, opposition parties alleged widespread fraud, including the stuffing of ballot boxes. Violence in the days following the elections cost ten lives. Unclear procedural instructions have since resulted in a number of contradictory decisions by local courts on election-related complaints.

The CENI’s provisional results indicate that President Conde’s RPG took 1.35 million votes, electing some 3,284 councilors (47 percent).  Cellou Dalein Diallo’s Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) won 893,000 votes to gain 2,156 councilors (31 percent). Former Prime Minister Sidya Touré’s Union of Republican Forces (UFR) won 190,000 votes, resulting in 447 council seats (6 percent). The remaining 1,125 seats – or 16 percent of the total, a significant minority – were won by candidates from small parties or independents. Over the coming weeks, Guinea’s communes will choose their mayors and deputy mayors. The mayors will then proceed to elect eight regional councils and, at the local level, designate ‘neighborhood leaders’ (chefs de quartiers).

Although the ruling party obtained a relative majority at the polls, it lost the capital Conakry, where over a quarter of Guinea’s population live, to the opposition and independent candidates. Pending the availability of additional data on voter turnout, the results could be an indication that voters are tired of campaign promises that remain empty and the political elite’s disconnect from their daily struggles.  Especially in the larger communes, campaign themes focused on high unemployment, poor public health care, education, widespread corruption, and Conakry’s ever-growing mountains of garbage. They resonated well with voters, prompting them to elect independent or small party candidates, for example in Beyla (N’Zérékore), Coyah (Kindia), Kaloum (Conakry), Faranah and Siguiri (Kankan).

Guinea’s governing and main opposition parties may be well advised to start listening up to citizens’ concerns as they start preparing for legislative elections later this year, and presidential polls in 2020. Moreover, the lack of trust in the local elections’ results, mainly linked to allegations of fraud after the closing of polling stations and a lack of transparent communication by the CENI, has cast renewed doubts on Guinea’s capacities to organize transparent elections in the future without substantial international oversight. The anticipated coalition negotiations could provide a sneak preview on potential future political alliances ahead of the next legislative and presidential polls.

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