BISSAU: Opposition leader Umaro Sissoco Embalo won presidential elections in the volatile West African state of Guinea-Bissau, picking up 53.55 per cent of votes, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) announced on Wednesday.
His rival Domingos Simoes Pereira, head of the country’s historic ruling party PAIGC, took 46.45 per cent in Sunday’s runoff.
“I declare Umaro Sissoco Embalo to be the winner of this second round,” CNE President Jose Pedro Sambu said.
Embalo supporters erupted with joy close to the tightly-policed hotel in the capital Bissau where the results were announced.
They beat pots and cans and sang and danced. Some bore giant red-and-white keffiyehs, the Arab headdress that became Embalo’s campaign trademark.
Embalo, 47, takes over from Jose Mario Vaz, who came to power in 2014 on hopes of stabilising a country notorious for coups since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974.
But his tenure was hampered by a paralysing face off with parliament under the country’s semi-presidential political system.
The CNE put turnout at 72.67 per cent, virtually identical to the first round of voting on November 24, which Pereira won with 40.1 per cent against 28 per cent for Embalo.
Embalo is nicknamed “The General,” a reference to his rank as a reserve brigadier general. He quit the army in the 1990s.
Like Pereira, he is also a former prime minister, serving under Vaz between 2016 and 2018, before representing Madem, a party formed by PAIGC rebels. He fought to overcome his first-round vote deficit by portraying himself as a unifier of the country and by gaining the backing of eliminated candidates, including Vaz.
Elisa Pinto, an election monitor representing Guinea-Bissau civil society, said the vote had proceeded smoothly and there was a clear result.
“The election went off well. One candidate won,” she said.
But, she added, “he will have a lot of responsibilities at these difficult times... (he) will have to address the public’s concern, and the public needs stability and national reconciliation.”
“Without that, there cannot be development,” Pinto warned.
Embalo’s prime task will be to deal with a legislature dominated by the PAIGC — the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which led an 11-year armed struggle to end Portugal’s colonial rule.
Under the constitution, the parliament has the right to designate the prime minister, but this appointee can be fired by the president — a circular problem that led to the paralysis during Vaz’s presidency.
Nearly 70 per cent of Guinea-Bissau’s 1.8 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. The country ranks 178th out of 189 on the UN’s Human Development Index. Average life expectancy is just 57.8 years.
Latin American drug runners have exploited the instability and poverty to make the country a hub along the cocaine-smuggling route to Europe.