How to Ensure Free and Fair Elections in Guinea

When the French pulled out of Guinea in 1958, making it the first sub-Saharan African colony to gain independence from France, they literally left the country in disarray. Everything from the light bulbs to the birth certificates were taken or destroyed. Since then, the Republic of Guinea has been on a tumultuous road to development and democracy.

Though blessed with vast quantities of natural mineral wealth, including diamonds, gold, and some of the largest reserves of bauxite in the world, Guinea suffers from endemic corruption, political instability, and deep social fissures. These tensions fuel intense rivalries between ethnic groups, often resulting in violent clashes, delayed elections, and prolonged periods of social, economic and political strife.

After nearly three years of postponements, legislative elections were finally held this past September. They revealed serious shortcomings in the legal and institutional framework of Guinea’s electoral system. Now, with presidential elections less than two years away, there’s no time to waste in ensuring fundamental reforms are made.  

What the 2013 Elections Revealed

Two main challenges surfaced during the elections: the weak and partisan structure of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which is in charge of the overall management of electoral process, and gaps in the Electoral Code and Constitution. 

All those involved in the electoral process (including government and state institutions, the executive and legislative branches, and political parties themselves) urgently need to:

  • Reach consensus on the nature and depth of necessary electoral reforms. They must ascertain what can feasibly be done given the available time, political environment, and practicality of implementation.
  • Decide whether there should be a new type of INEC: perhaps one that is purely technical, or an external mechanism with organic functions and composition that would reassure political actors. Or, alternatively, internally reorganize the INEC altogether.
  • Reform the Constitution and Electoral Code, which remains unclear on how, exactly, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Electoral Commission collaborate on deadlines for centralizing results from the field and on procedures for electoral dispute settlements.

Aside from these overriding challenges, the serious lack of trust among the various actors in the electoral process (such as political parties, the electoral commission, civil society, and citizens) must be addressed. All parties have to be willing to put aside partisanship to achieve the two-thirds Parliamentary majority needed for the rapid enactment of certain laws. 

Laws must be adopted to allow the establishment and functions of the Constitutional Court in charge of resolving the national election-related disputes; and of the High Communications Authority (which is in charge of media regulation) to ensure fairness during the electoral process.

It is also crucial that the political parties, the Electoral Commission, the government, and parliament set up biometric voter registration (a system that can involve fingerprints or photographs) before the 2015 presidential polls, as Article 9 of the July 2013 Agreement on the Preparation and Organization of Legislative Elections suggests. This is important because the BVR is the most reliable way of determining the identity of individuals and vital in a country where birth certificates are still rare.

In the best case scenario, the registration process will take at least 12 months to complete, from selection of a technical operator to settling any legal disputes over the register. Political obstacles, such as deciding on the biometric service provider itself and how the actual process of dispensing equipment will unfold, are inevitable. This simply reaffirms why immediate planning is imperative.

The primary responsibility lies with the government and parliamentarians, though civil society can inform public opinion and guide politicians—who are otherwise too preoccupied with their partisan interests—away from driving the process to a stalemate.  Beyond conventional technical and financial support, development partners (such as the European Union, UNDP, France, and the United States) should offer solutions to these challenges and help ensure full implementation of the July 2013 Agreement, which remains valid even after the completion of legislative elections.

2015: What’s at Stake?

The 2015 presidential election will likely resemble a “third round” of the preceding ones in 2010. After the first round, the two opposition parties (who won 43 percent and 13 percent, respectively) joined forces. This would seemingly have guaranteed them victory.

However, President Alpha Conde, who won about 18 percent of the vote in first round, surprisingly ended up winning the second round. This prompted the opposition to argue that the elections were stolen. The close presidential race, and the heated disputes that followed, suggest that the 2015 election will also be tight and, undoubtedly, controversial.

As each political coalition believes they will win in 2015, it is urgent to ensure that the elections are carried out in a transparent and credible way. This means instilling an environment of trust, which can be facilitated through the implementation of some of the measures recommended above.

If preparations are not made, Guinea risks falling back into a perpetual cycle of instability, violence, and economic and human losses, as was the case during the legislative elections.

Our Role

In the run-up to the election we are supporting the following efforts to help ensure a free, fair, and credible electoral process:

  • Advocacy: Situational analysis (in the form of op-eds, policy briefs, and reports) will discuss what is at stake, including the weakness of the Electoral Commission and the legal and institutional shortcomings, and possible solutions to these challenges.
  • Improved election monitoring: The Economic Community of West African States Network of Electoral Commissions will design and implement a project for Guinea’s electoral commission that includes on-the-ground experience sharing among other West African electoral commissions, civil society groups, and political parties.
  • Support for civil society: Campaigns will cover understanding how to vote, why to vote, and how to behave during the voting process to avoid unnecessary violence. An Election Situation Room—a rapid-response and coordination model used by civil society, governments, and armed forces before, during, and after elections—will be implemented. It provides ways to immediately address issues such as missing ballots, double voting, or potential triggers of violence, which helps lend more credibility and fairness to the overall electoral process.

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Great analyses and article congrats!

Well balanced analysis. Hope that all stakeholders will take this early warning seriously to avoid a fall back.

I like the ideas and I'm also amazed to see that there are some people who understand what is going on and come up with great analysis that will actually prevent the country from falling into violence again. I hope the above 3 points will be taken into consideration.

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