“Democracy has begun in Guinea,” said Mamadou Diallo, 47, who is regaining the use of his hand severed in the September 2009 bloody military crackdown many say was the turning point that paved the way for the unprecedented presidential election set for 27 June.
After 52 years of dictatorial rule with occasional elections deemed by most as pure theatre to keep the military ruler in power, Guineans will select from 24 civilian candidates, with no incumbent on the ballot.
The capital Conakry is plastered with candidates’ billboards and banners calling for transparency and stability. Night-time silhouettes of people crowded into pick-ups could be mistaken for armed soldiers, long a fixture in the streets, but on closer inspection one sees they are youths demonstrating for their favourite political leaders.
“One cannot even qualify how much is at stake,” Thierno Baldé, head of a youth association, told IRIN on 21 June, just back from a civil society-sponsored nationwide tour to talk with youths about preventing election violence. “This will be the first time ever Guinea will have a leader chosen by the people.”
After extensive involvement and financial support by the international community Guineans and Guinea watchers are hopeful. It is the first time since military ruler Lansana Conté took power in a 1984 coup - after the death of Ahmed Sékou Touré - that elected civilian rule is within reach.
But given the country’s lack of a democratic tradition, long-time indiscipline in the military, and politics steeped in ethnic divisions, researchers and election experts say the bar is relatively low. Many hope the country can simply pull off a peaceful poll in which contenders will accept the results. A second round, if necessary, would be held on 18 July.
Already there have been violent clashes between political party militants. A distraught youth at a 23 June Cellou Dalein Diallo rally in Conakry shouted about how he and family members were attacked in a nearby town by supporters of Sidya Touré. Candidates, civil society leaders and diplomats have repeatedly called for calm.
Among the encouraging steps, according to Elizabeth Côté, Guinea head of the US-based NGO International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), is a voter registry accepted by all candidates and national administration showing itself to be neutral.
“Generally conditions are good,” said Côté, who has been in Guinea for years working on election issues and civil-military relations. “The biggest issue remains logistics… But there is such a strong will on the part of all actors to make this succeed that people should manage to get past [any glitches].” She noted that there are more than 1,000 international and national observers throughout the country.
Mathieu Bile Bouah, UN elections consultant who has been in Guinea since 2007, said logistical problems will be only as significant as people want to make them. "Everyone involved - from the government to the candidates to the citizens - must demonstrate the will to make this work.”
Moving past military
Observers say in the end this election, which they say will inevitably have its flaws, is about moving beyond military rule in Guinea.
“First and foremost this election must be seen as the step that gets the army out of power,” said Mamady Kaba, head of the pan-African human rights group RADDHO in Guinea.
“In subsequent elections we can hope for a better, freer, more credible process. For now the essential thing is that all candidates commit to having one victor - the Guinean people.”
“Most neutral individuals will probably say these elections were as good as we’re going to get in the circumstances,” Richard Moncrieff, head of International Crisis Group’s West Africa programme, told IRIN. “We must get out of the state of exception and move on.”
He said flaws could lead to contestations by anyone who does not want to accept the outcome. “But I’m relatively optimistic… that people who contest it will be marginalized in the same way as those who tried to delay it have been in the past six months.”
Interim military ruler Sékouba Konaté, who took over after Moussa Dadis Camara left Guinea following an assassination attempt in December, has been praised by Guineans and the international community for moving swiftly towards elections and sticking to his vow neither to run nor to endorse a candidate.
Konaté, a long-time army general, has also been able to transform the face of the military.
“He has broken up the Dadis structure more boldly than I thought he would,” Moncrieff said. “Konaté has worked to reinstate hierarchical command, whereas Dadis was about turning it on its head.”
Why has Konaté been able to effect such a turnaround? “There was the shock of 28 September, which I think a lot of soldiers were appalled by,” he said. “Then there was the shooting of the president, which was a sort of watershed as well.”
He said Konaté is one of the people in the Guinean military who knows well the history of Liberia and Sierra Leone. “I think he made a calculation - yes, I profit from disorder but on the other hand if this country really tips over the edge most people lose.”
The longer term political role of the military is less certain, observers say.
“There is the more general question of discipline and order in the army," said Moncrieff. "The durability of that is more difficult to measure.”
For now Guineans say Konaté’s influence has translated into a change in daily life. For years seen as the people’s enemy instead of protector, with daily harassment and frequent crackdowns in which civilians have died at the hands of soldiers, the army has drastically reduced its presence in the streets.
“We go one, two, three weeks without hearing a gunshot,” said a local journalist who preferred anonymity. “We sleep in peace now.”
Will people sleep in peace after the elections?
“We will see,” he said. “We cannot say for now.”
It remains to be seen, observers say, whether soldiers will remain in their barracks throughout the elections but signs are promising.
IFES’s Côté said Konaté can most likely continue to keep the military in check during the elections, but stability will depend on the behaviour of everyone involved.
“Anything can happen and there could be a domino effect if [unrest breaks out]. In this case the army might be stuck in a position where they have to act.” In the past the Guinean army’s response to public demonstrations and civil strife has been brutal suppression.
She said if results are contested and things turn bad, this would give credence to those who have warned against accepting an election, any election, in order to put a stamp of “successful transition” so the international community can re-engage in the country.
Major donors like the United States, France and the European Union have suspended many aid programmes since the December 2008 coup or the September 2009 violent military crackdown.
Guinea's ethnic makeup is Peulh (a majority at about 40 percent), Malinké, Soussou, and several smaller groups from the Forest Region including the Guerzé. From independence in 1958 to the 2008 coup that brought Guerzé Camara to power, the country had two presidents - one Malinké and one Soussou.
Guineans told IRIN ethnicity weighs heavily in people’s candidate selection.
“People tend to act ‘ethnically’, if you will, not socially,” the local journalist told IRIN. “We must educate people to vote not based on ethnicity but on a candidate’s programme for the country.”
Crisis Group’s Moncrieff said ethnic tensions persist but “that’s not where things are playing out at the moment”; he said ethnic strife is likely to be more of a problem in upcoming legislative elections.
President but no parliament
Legislative elections have been planned and cancelled several times in the past few years and the lack of a legitimate government will be an important factor as a civilian leader takes power, Moncrieff said.
It could either reinforce centralization of power - “with the president just picking up a pen and doing what he wishes by decree”, a problem across West Africa, he said - or the new leader’s position could be weakened because people could say the constitutional transition has not been completed.