Guinea-Bissau, a tiny slice of the West African coastline that has endured decades of political violence, will vote for a new president tomorrow, though neither contender offers real hope of a break with the past.
The decisive second round of the poll, triggered by the killing of late president Joao Bernardo Vieira in March, was initially seen as a chance to end the spiral of retribution between the presidency and the military that culminated with the twin slayings of Vieira and the armed forces chief of staff.
However, familiar faces and familiar problems still dominate the political landscape.
Malam Bacai Sanha, widely seen as favorite to win tomorrow, and rival Kumba Yala have both been president before, the latter for a chaotic 2000 to 2003 spell that saw four prime ministers, more than 80 ministers and a halt to IMF and World Bank lending.
Whoever wins, much of the real power will remain in the hands of the soldiers.
“Whatever the balance of power between institutions, it’s the military that calls the shots in Guinea-Bissau and that’s not going to change whoever wins this election,” said Richard Reeve, West Africa analyst for Oxford Analytica.
Sanha represents the ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), while Yala is standing for the Social Renewal Party (PRS).
“The military is more opposed to the PAIGC than the PRS because the PAIGC has been much more overt about security sector reform,” Reeve said.
The military has repeatedly shown its willingness to intervene in politics since the country won independence from Portugal in 1974. It has declared its neutrality, but many officers were promoted during Yala’s stint in power.
“It is essential that the authority of the state is restored in order to assure the security and physical safety of all citizens,” Sanha said while campaigning this week.
Years of insecurity are to blame for the lack of much-needed foreign investment in Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest countries on earth, Yala told supporters.
“What the country clearly needs is security sector reform as well as institutional capacity building,” IHS Global Insight analyst Kissy Agyeman-Togobo said.
The corrupting influence of drug smugglers from across the Atlantic, who have in recent years used Guinea-Bissau as a transit point for cocaine on its way to Europe, often with the complicity of the armed forces, will leave the winner as the head of a severely weakened state.
“Whoever comes to power will have to grapple with these harsh realities, but with the support of the international community in the combat of illegal drugs,” Agyeman-Togobo said.
Ethnicity strongly favors Sanha, as analysts say Yala is unlikely to be able to broaden his appeal beyond his Balante tribe.
“Past practice would suggest Kumba Yala will dispute the result, but his capacity to cause trouble is pretty limited,” Reeve said.