West hopes Guinea Bissau elections will quell cocaine trade
Nairobi/Bissau - Guinea Bissau goes to the polls Sunday in parliamentary elections the international community hopes will help turn the tide on South American cocaine-traffickers using the tiny West African nation as a hub to bring their drugs into Europe.
The nation has struggled with coups and uprisings since its independence from Portugal in 1974, and is still recovering from the 1998-9 civil war that took out much of its infrastructure.
Now narcotics experts are warning that the country has turned into a "narco-state" as drug smugglers take advantage of weak governance and policing to effectively run the country.
The international community - including the European Union, the UN and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - is funding the polls.
The donors are hoping that a stable government will emerge from the election, during which almost 600,000 voters will elect 100 members of parliament.
However, the previous coalition government fell apart in August when the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which had 45 seats in parliament, abandoned a national stability pact.
Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is ranked at 175 out of 177 nations in the UN Development Programme's Human Development Index.
Most of its 1.6 million inhabitants survive from subsistence farming. Life expectancy at birth is only 46 years.
The country's main export is cashew nuts, and until recently it had little or no foreign direct investment (FDI).
However, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a recent report that it saw a spike in FDI to 42 million dollars in 2006, pointing to a jump in profits from the cocaine industry.
The smugglers transport drugs across the Atlantic by boat or light aircraft and then offload them in Guinea-Bissau. The drugs are then smuggled into Europe.
The drug-trafficking issue was one of the major campaigning points in the election, with parties accusing each other of being on the payroll of South American drug barons.
Over 150 foreign election observers, including a strong EU mission, are on the ground to monitor the polls, which four parties are expected to dominate.
President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira hopes that the newly formed Republican Party for Independence and Development (PRID), led by one of his allies, will perform strongly.
Vieira returned to power in 2005, six years after he was ousted in the civil war. Vieira is a hero of the independence struggle against Portugal and ruled the country for 19 years prior to the civil war.
But Vieira has faced problems since he regained power and just after parliament dissolved in August he had his Navy chief arrested on suspicion of planning a coup.
Aligned against the PRID is the traditionally strong PAIGC and the Social Renewal Party (PRS), which has the support of the Balante ethnic group.
The Development, Democracy and Citizenship Party (PADEC) is also viewed as having a shot a joining a ruling coalition. (dpa)