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International observers give Guinea’s
local elections cautious endorsement

Report by IRIN

5 January 2006: The ruling party of the West African state of Guinea emerged strengthened from local elections held in December 2005. According to final results the Party of Unity and Progress (PUP) retained the vast majority of the more than 300 communities. The poll was closely watched by the international community, which has been highly critical of Guinea in the past over a perception of corruption and lack of democracy.

The West African nation – one of the world's poorest despite its wealth of water and mineral resources – has a history of polls marred by violence and boycotted by the opposition. But this time, international donors backed the poll and the opposition participated in an electoral process billed as a trial run for the prime minister's ongoing reform programme.

The announcement that the PUP had won 31 out of 38 urban seats and 241 out of 303 rural posts came as little surprise in a country where President Lansana Conte and his party have won every election since he came to power in a 1984 coup. If the general population appeared relatively unfazed by the news, opposition politicians were quick to denounce the official results of the vote.

"I cannot imagine how in 2005 a party could score 100 per cent in any election whatsoever," former prime minister and current opposition leader, Sidya Toure, said, referring to a pair of rural communities where the PUP was attributed 98 and 99 per cent of the vote. "The results, as far as these elections are concerned, are farcical and totally unacceptable."

Toure's complaints mirrored those of other opposition leaders who held a joint press conference last week to denounce what they perceived as massive fraud. But the PUP responded with a charge of sour grapes, pointing to the presence of 400 neutral observers on the ground to bolster its claims of a free and transparent vote. "That's the way with African politics. When we lose, we cry foul," the PUP's secretary general Sekou Konate replied to critism.

In a preliminary report, the observers from 26 civil society NGOs described the conduct of the polls as essentially peaceful and orderly despite isolated incidents. But observers did list a string of procedural problems, including supplies shortages, the use of false identification papers and the improper supervision of voting by election officials.

According to the opposition, large-scale street protests took place in the country's interior after which some of their supporters remain imprisoned without charge.

For Mike McGovern, West Africa project director at think-tank International Crisis Group, the real picture probably lies somewhere between the government and opposition versions. "It seems pretty clear to me that technically there were problems," he said in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. "That doesn't mean fraud. Certainly, it leaves the door open for that, but even in the absence of fraud, opposition candidates may not have seen the results they wanted."

He said that the ruling party has developed a powerful political machine over its two decades in power, allowing it to raise more money, mobilise more supporters and field more candidates than its opponents. At the same time, the opposition needs to focus less on criticising the current regime and more on providing its own partisans with election know-how and actually getting them out to vote, said McGovern.

One of the frequent themes of campaign coverage was voter apathy and anecdotal reports suggested many voters stayed at home on polling day. The official turnout given on Tuesday was 58 per cent, though it was a mere 37 in urban communities.

Nevertheless, McGovern was "provisionally just a little bit optimistic" about the prospects of Guinea's evolution from a country that holds show elections just to appease donors into a state with entrenched democratic institutions. "One has to be very honest and say this is a long-term process," he cautioned. "It's not going to take weeks or months," he said.

As for the question of foreign aid and investment, a western diplomat in Conakry was equally guarded about drawing conclusions this early in the game. He said the international community would adopt a common position after meeting with the observers. "Fraud is committed during most elections all over the world. We still have to see on what scale and in what manner it happened here."

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