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Elections in Guinea: the beginning, not the end

Written by Victoria Chambers

As Guinea gears up for its long overdue legislative elections on 27 June, one important issue is being overlooked. In the long process of diplomatic negotiations, external carrot waving, political unrest and violent opposition protests, the elections are seen as the final rather than the first step in the democratic process. The international community believes that the elections are indispensable for Guinea to establish legitimacy and unlock its development potential and they may be right. But what, if anything, will the elections really change

Guinea has an abundance of mineral reserves as well as immense agricultural potential, yet its population remains incredibly poor. Like many other sub-Saharan African countries, it has experienced considerable political turmoil and instability. Guineans have never enjoyed a functioning state and the country has moved from one repressive regime to another, with the military intervening at every critical juncture. Successive governments have failed to use the country’s exceptional mineral wealth and agricultural capacity to improve the social and economic conditions of its population. 

Even so, Guinea’s post-independence history has been relatively peaceful. It has been spared the violence and civil war which has blighted its close neighbours and which was seen elsewhere on the continent, and the transition process brokered by West African and international actors, coupled with the subsequent democratic election of President Alpha Condé in 2010, brought renewed hope for the country.

Today, however, Guinea is experiencing increasing ethnic tensions, social unrest and political violence and is enduring a political stalemate. Legislative elections to elect a Guinean National Assembly should have taken place six months after the December 2010 national elections, but they have been delayed, boycotted and postponed. There has been intense political wrangling over the constitution and presidency of the Independent National Electoral Commission. And deep political divisions have been fuelled by disputes over technical issues such as voter registration lists, the electronic voter kit supplier and the rights of the diaspora to vote.

These obstacles are nothing new in Guinean electoral processes and will not surprise those familiar with the country’s history. Legislative elections have been a root of tension since the introduction of multi-party politics, and both presidential and opposition coalitions have resorted to delaying tactics when they have feared losing the majority in the assembly. Today’s political actors, then, are merely following an established pattern.

Understanding why the same tensions repeat themselves around elections in Guinea means understanding the institutional dynamics of the functioning of the state. The power structure in Guinea is distinguished by a complex blend of economic, political and military interests that is influenced by a strong kinship dimension. Guinea is also a country where personalised rules and informal institutions predominate. In this context, power struggles for access to state resources have created ever-shifting and competing coalitions of interests. The formal structures of the state are embedded in these dynamics and are undermined by them, preventing the creation of effective and deep-rooted state institutions.

As in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, although competitive politics has opened up the Guinean political system it has not altered these fundamental power structures and dynamics. As the country’s elites have moved into the political sphere to secure their place in political coalitions this has fragmented the political landscape. This elite fragmentation encourages elites to turn to, and therefore reinforce, ethnic divisions that, in turn, reduce the incentives for elites to engage in collective action. And in the long-run it might undermine the prospects for effective governance.

We should not rush, however, to dismiss the process of these elections. Although their main impetus has come from external actors it is clear that Guinea’s population want the transition process to be finalised. What’s more, the elections may provide some limited scope for positive developments in the political landscape. New threshold requirements for political parties, if implemented, could eliminate many of the smaller parties from the political landscape and reduce political fragmentation. However this represents a real threat to the current power structure. To ensure the legitimacy of any post-electoral power structure it is crucial to give adequate time and space to the informal coalition- and consensus-building processes that are needed to ensure that the electoral process and its trade-offs are acceptable to all key actors.

It seems unlikely that the elections will alter the distribution of power in any profound way unless the informal power dynamics that underlie the current system are taken into account. There is a need to increase the capacity for collective action on the part of the elite, to give the government the legitimacy to advance essential reform processes around mineral wealth extractions and poverty reduction. This requires the inclusion of all key actors in the pre-electoral coalition process to ensure that there is no perceived illegitimacy in the post-election period.

So while the elections are clearly essential, the international community may be putting too much faith in the power of the elections alone to transform the country, while overlooking the importance of the informal dynamics. The international community should now focus on taking the time to ensure that the (informal and formal) electoral process is conducted legitimately while being realistic about what these elections can achieve. Yes, the legislative elections are an important step in building an effective and legitimate state in Guinea. But they are only the beginning of the process for broader economic, social and political transformation that is needed to improve the lives of Guinea’s people.