Presidential election campaign posters are seen on a billboard in Bissau, November 8, 2019. (Photo by - / AFP)
Presidential election campaign posters are seen on a billboard in Bissau, November 8, 2019. (Photo by - / AFP)

BISSAU, GUINEA BISSAU - Elections are less than a week away in Guinea Bissau, where residents are hoping to emerge from years of political stagnation. On November 24, voters will choose the next president.   

President Jose Mario Vaz is the first democratically-elected president in Guinea-Bissau's history to finish his term.

He is up for re-election, but is facing stiff competition from several opponents, including former prime ministers Carlos Gomes, Jr. and Domignos Simoes Pereira.

Vaz campaign spokesperson Herry Mane said the president should be re-elected to move the country forward with needed reforms.

"In the country, corruption was installed at the highest level,” he said. “Drug trafficking, with collaboration of a lot of people, was installed at the highest level, we needed to fight that. We needed to make reforms, but reforms are not easy."

Vaz's five-year term has not been without turmoil.  When the president fired Pereira as prime minister in 2015, a political stalemate between Vaz and the majority party PAIGC ensued.

The country went through years of no new legislation being passed.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stepped in to mediate the crisis and pushed for sticking to the election date.

Vincent Foucher, a researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research, said ECOWAS was integral for keeping the elections on track.

"Clearly, the international community has been very important in Guinea Bissau in bringing this election about, and bringing also the legislative elections,” Foucher said.  “What is quite significant is that there is a very strong leadership by ECOWAS, which these last few years has basically been enjoying the support of most of their international partners...there's a sense that, OK, ECOWAS owns this."

Pereira is running against Vaz as the PAIGC candidate.

Pereira, campaigning in the small towns, has promised better roads, schools and hospitals to rural residents. Everywhere he goes, he wears his signature straw-colored fedora.

The hat is known as "Tchon Na Fria," which he says loosely translates to “fresh air hat” in local Portuguese-based Creole.  He says it represents a break from the past  including Vaz.

"We cannot afford to continue to have entire families that don't have anybody to relate to in terms of literacy,” Pereira said. ”So this has to be a big question. This country needs a restart, fresh air."

Other main contenders include Umaru Sissoko Embalo, the candidate for MADEM-15, a new party that sprouted up during the political stalemate, and Nunu Nabiam, the candidate for PRS opposition party, which usually enjoys the support of the Balanta community, the second largest ethnic group in Guinea Bissau.

As election day approaches, trucks drive by with music and slogans blaring from loudspeakers. Most residents hope this election will keep the country on a democratic path and give it a functioning government again.