Free and fair elections are an essential component of any well functioning democracy. Yet, elections can often be the source of civil unrest, elite machinations, and political violence as both those in power and various constituents may feel threatened by change or upset at the lack of change. In 2014, executive level elections are scheduled in six African states: Guinea-Bissau, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Mauritania, and the Central African Republic. But will the elections be fair? Will the current leader step down if defeated? Will societal upheaval or the military undo the democratic process? Will the election even happen?
Guinea Bissau is scheduled to have the first executive level election this year in March after having postponed the elections in November. While it is promising that the elections were not postponed indefinitely, the country’s string of coups and coup attempts in its recent history tells us that the upcoming election may not go smoothly.
In 2008 then president Joao Bernardo Vieira dissolved the government, survived a coup attempt, but was murdered the following year. In 2010, then prime minister Carlos Gomes Junior was arrested and threatened with death on account of protestors in the streets. Later that year, the Carter Center Election Observation Mission noted some problems during the 2010 elections but ultimately concluded the election held up to international and regional obligations to be considered a genuine elections. In 2011 there was yet another coup attempt and in 2012 the military arrested the two leading candidates between the 1st and 2nd round of a runoff election.
Why so many coups? With the country being located on the tip of West Africa, Guinea Bissau has, in recent years, become a transit hub for Latin American drug cartels transporting their products to Europe. This trade is largely controlled by the military and the profits from it are enormous. The UN has threatened sanctions should their be any efforts to derail or delay the election process, but unless those sanctions pose a bigger risk than the immense rewards offered by the drug trade we may see another coup attempt whenever the democratic process becomes inconvenient for the military.