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The multiple international dimensions of an election in a small African country

On April 13, Bissau Guineans went to the polls to elect a new president and 102 members of its parliament, the Assembleia Nacional Popular.

Where is Guinea-Bissau? What should I know about it?

Guinea-Bissau is a small country in West Africa and a former Portuguese colony. If you’ve never heard of it, Africa is a Country posted an apt 10-point “what you should know” list about it shortly after Guinea-Bissau’s military coup in 2012. If you really want to get down o the nitty-gritty of the political history, Marina Padrão Temudo’s African Studies Review paper from 2009 is a good starting point.

Americans might compare it to West Virginia, both in area (Guinea-Bissau: 22,447 square miles; West Virginia: 24,078 square miles) and population (Guinea-Bissau: 1,693,398; West Virginia: 1,855,413). The image below helps you locate it on a map, in case some political scientist were to ever ask you if you could.

Guinea Bissau in West Africa (Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

How did the elections go?

Various news agencies and election observers have reported on the election and the results. In short, the election was peaceful and orderly. The image below is a screen shot of a [Google-translated] crowd-sourced, real-time map of positive (blue) and negative (pink) reports from citizen monitors.

Translated screen capture from (Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

Official election returns report José Mário Vaz of the PAIGC and independent candidate Nuno Gomes Nabiam as the two top vote-getters in the presidential race. Vaz won nearly 41 percent of the popular vote, and Nabiam 25 percent. There were some regional patterns to the voting (see map below). Nabiam did well in Oio (won 44 percent of the vote there) and Vaz won more than the majority (55 percent) of votes in Bissau, the most populous region, where the capital is located.

Because neither candidate won an absolute majority, Guinea-Bissau’s electoral rules require a presidential runoff, which is scheduled for May 18. Some analysts see Vaz as the favorite to win the runoff, but also caution that Nabiam’s ties to the military — particularly the chief of staff of the armed forces, Gen. Antonio Indjai — could stand in the way of a Vaz win.

(Data: CNE; Figure: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage)

As in many other democratizing contexts, there are multiple international dimensions to Guinea-Bissau’s recent election, and I highlight just a few:

  • International donors funded the election. According to a European Union observation report, “The international community financed the entire electoral process with one-third of the contributions coming from the European Union.” And, it didn’t come cheap. The E.U. estimates that the cost in Guinea-Bissau was $17 per voter, which is greater than 10 times the estimated cost of an election in Senegal ($1.20 per voter), and closer to the estimated cost in Afghanistan’s 2004 election ($20 per voter).
  • Many election monitors were foreign, and domestic monitors were largely trained by foreign agencies. The E.U. report estimated that 680 domestic monitors and more than 400 international observers (200 of whom were from ECOWAS, 46 of whom were from the E.U.) monitored the electoral process in Guinea-Bissau. The citizen monitoring crowd-sourcing site (see screenshot above) was funded by the European Union and developed by OneWorld UK, an international nongovernmental organization focused on mobile phone technology. OneWorld UK “specially trained” 400 citizen monitors in Guinea-Bissau to report on the election via SMS to a centralized information center in the capital.
  • Bissau Guineans living abroad could vote for parliamentary candidates, and for the first time in this election, diaspora voters could also vote for a presidential candidate. The official electoral results provide no information on how the diaspora voted, although the E.U. observers’ report stated that of the 775,508 citizens registered to vote in the election, 22,312 were in the diaspora. Two of the 102 seats in Guinea-Bissau’s parliament are specifically allocated to representing the diaspora.
  • Guinea-Bissau has been under great pressure from the international community to hold these elections. Various international agencies and bilateral donors condemned the 2012 military coup and pressed for the elections (which had been delayed twice before finally taking place on April 13). The pressure included not just threats of the typical Western variety (though there were plenty of those). The African Union suspended Guinea-Bissau’s membership after the coup, but following the recent election said sanctions would be lifted. Brazil froze all “cooperative projects” after the 2012 coup, stating such projects would commence after a return to democratic normality.
  • The leading presidential candidates have ties and experience abroad. Vaz earned a degree in Portugal and lived there briefly following the 2012 coup. And, according to a Reuters photojournalist, Nabiam used to run a laundromat in Boston:
Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

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