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Regional Alliance, International Community Back Guinea-Bissau Vote


Candidates in Guinea-Bissau wrap-up campaigning Friday in the nation's presidential election. Eleven candidates are running to succeed long-time president Joao Bernardo Vieria, who was killed by mutinous soldiers in March.

After spending much of the last month campaigning in Guinea-Bissau's countryside, candidates hold closing rallies in the capital Friday. Saturday is an official "Day of Reflection" before Sunday's ballot, where 600,000 voters are registered to choose a new president.

It is a chance to restore constitutional order following President Vieria's death, hours after his chief political rival died in a bomb blast. Given the country's history of army mutinies and coups, neighboring states and the international community have invested heavily in making sure this vote succeeds.

"There is a critical need to entrench political and economic stability in Guinea-Bissau," said Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua.

President Yar'Adua leads the Economic Community of West African States. He told regional leaders meeting in Abuja this week that Sunday's vote is a chance for Guinea-Bissau to join regional states committed to democracy.

"It is my hope that collectively we will do all within our powers to consolidate democracy in West Africa such as conflicts in whatever form will be mitigated, if not completely eliminated, in our region," he said.

Franco Nulli represents the European Union in Bissau.

Nulli says it is clear that Guinea-Bissau has undergone a very difficult period of instability and recurrent troubles over the last few years. He says it is also clear that the feeling at the international and national level is one of powerlessness and reluctance to believe that there will be a different situation here in the future.

Nulli says he believes a different future is possible if the international community helps. The EU has spent more than $3 million to help finance this vote.

Of course, Guinea-Bissau continues to experience a very fragile situation, Nulli says, a very abnormal situation. So a lot of work is needed to stop the situation from deteriorating further.

Nulli says structural reforms essential to Guinea-Bissau's future include changes to the civil service, improvements in the judicial system, stronger controls over public finances, and the complete reform of security forces.

The International Contact Group on Guinea Bissau - which includes ECOWAS, the United Nations, and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries - wants a military pension fund to encourage those who have reached retirement age to leave the army.

The group wants the rehabilitation of military barracks and a census of security forces so the new government can both demobilize current soldiers and recruit new cadets to better balance an army long dominated by the ethnic majority.

Franco Nulli, who represents the European Union in Bissau, says it is encouraging that soldiers did not seize power following the president's death, but there must still be far greater separation between military and political authorities.

Nulli says that this reform, as with any reform, is difficult because it is not just about building something new. It is about changing mentalities. And that is much more complicated.

Nulli says he hopes that following Sunday's vote and the restoration of constitutional order, the country can present international partners with a concrete plan for reform and development.

Nigerian President Yar'Adua says he plans to convene an international donor roundtable after the vote. ECOWAS not only paid the outstanding balance for electoral security, President Yar'Adua says the alliance also paid three-months back salary for the military.

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