Cape Verde, a bastion of democracy in Africa, is holding parliamentary polls with no clear winner in sight after a campaign dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on a tourism-dependent economy.
Neither of the two main parties is expected to emerge the outright winner in Sunday’s vote, giving four smaller parties a chance to have their say over the group of islands off the west coast of Africa.
In the capital, Praia, queues of voters began forming early in the day in front of schools serving as polling stations.
“The priority for me is to re-elect the government, fight COVID and develop the economy and tourism,” said Luis Leit, 44, after voting.
The 2020 recession
With foreign tourism accounting for about a quarter of the economy and visitors unable to come owing to global pandemic restrictions, Cape Verde, with a population of 550,000, was plunged into a recession in 2020, when output shrank by 14.8 percent.
Prime Minister Ulisses Correia e Silva nonetheless told reporters: “We are very confident. We hope to have an absolute majority.”
But his Movement for Democracy (MpD) is being closely challenged by the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV), a socialist party led by Janira Hopffer Almada.
The 42-year-old lawyer and former youth minister hopes to become the first woman to lead the former Portuguese colony.
After voting, Almada said “the state continued campaigning yesterday” (Saturday) after the official end of electioneering on Friday, calling it a “grave violation”.
Both main parties pledged measures to provide wide access to COVID-19 vaccinations and to diversify the economy.
Although it lies about 990km (615 miles) off the coast of Senegal, Cape Verde has witnessed a surge in coronavirus cases.
With 189 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the country had the highest rate in Africa according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for the period from April 5-11.
Voting began at 08:00 GMT and polling stations were scheduled to remain open until 19:00 GMT, with just over 392,000 people registered to vote.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Praia, said it appeared the majority of the voters turning up at polling stations were women.
“This is because in the race to become the next prime minister is Janira Almada. If she wins, she will be making history. She will be the first elected prime minister not only for Cape Verde but in Africa. So the women come out in droves to vote,” he said.
“It is also because Cape Verde is an island where mostly men have migrated out. The majority of the population is women and their main concern is economy and the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy here.”
In 1990, one-party rule in Cape Verde was swept away and the first multi-party elections were held the following year.
In 2016, the MpD ended the PAICV’s 15-year run with an historic victory, gaining 40 of 72 seats in the single-chamber parliament, the National Assembly.
Cape Verde has a semi-parliamentary system in which the prime minister wields executive power while the president plays the part of arbitrator in the event of intractable disputes.
Elections for the presidency take place on October 17.
In a continent marked by political unrest, coups or rulers who have been in power for decades, the tiny Atlantic archipelago stands out.
It ranked just behind Mauritius as the most democratic country in sub-Saharan Africa in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 Democracy Index.