BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau (AP) — The people of Guinea-Bissau went to the polls on Sunday, and the question on everyone's mind was whether this tiny West African nation, known as a transit hub for cocaine traffic, will finally find stability through democratic elections.
The presidential and parliamentary vote opened almost exactly two years to the day after the last coup, which short-circuited elections between two rounds of voting. The 2012 putsch hardly came as a surprise in the former Portuguese colony: No leader in Guinea Bissau's 40 years of independence has finished his time in office.
But with Sunday's election — and in the weeks and months that follow — Guinea-Bissau is trying to defy its tumultuous history and achieve stability. Voters flocked to polling stations around the country throughout the day, though the streets of the capital were largely empty except for security forces and journalists. Observers indicated there had been no major problems by the time polls closed in the early evening.
Results are expected within a week, and if no candidate wins a majority of the votes, there will be a runoff.
"These elections will mark a definitive turning of the page in the history of the country," Leonel Pedro Biague, a construction worker in the capital, said in the days before the vote. "I'm convinced that these elections won't be like those of the past."
Big challenges remain, however. Perhaps the most difficult will be righting the faltering economy, which is built on cashews, foreign aid and the illegal cocaine business. Cashew exports have plummeted, and, after the 2012 coup, some international organizations pulled back aid, which accounts for half of the country's gross domestic product in the best of years.
Still, there's reason to hope these elections will bring change, according to Vincent Foucher of the International Crisis Group, including immense pressure for a successful vote from the international community, which wields significant leverage because of the country's dependence on aid.
A recent International Crisis Group report also noted that a new generation of politicians, more open to compromise, may make a difference. Among the front-runners for the presidency is Paulo Gomes, a Harvard-educated, former World Bank economist who is running as an independent and is making a mark despite not having a party machine. Even the powerful PAIGC party, whose candidate was on track to win the last elections, prompting the coup, has chosen someone who appears less threatening to the military establishment, Jose Mario Vaz, a former finance minister.
That's important in a country where the military has not been shy about seizing power to maintain the status quo.
In 2012, in the days before the runoff election, the military arrested the prime minister who was then the leading presidential candidate. Shortly after, the junta agreed to hand power to a caretaker president, Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo, who has led the nation of 1.7 million since then.
What comes after the elections is thorny: jumpstarting the economy, reforming the military, and stemming the flow of South American cocaine passing through the country's numerous uninhabited islands for destinations in Europe and the United States.
The new government's approach to the drug trade will be especially important for its standing in the international community — and that involves taking on the military. The head of the country's armed forces is in under federal indictment in the United States for conspiring to sell missiles to Colombian rebels, storing their cocaine and conspiring to send cocaine to the U.S.
Still, the crisis group's Foucher says this time could be different. For one, public opinion is beginning to turn against the armed forces, and they may just be ready to accept the compromises and reforms being pushed by the international community.
DiLorenzo reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Youssouf Bah contributed to this report.