The Gambia’s first legislative elections since the downfall of Yahya Jammeh are expected to inject democracy into a parliament which under authoritarian rule was derided as a rubberstamp assembly.
In The Gambia ‘s largest city of Serekunda, it seems that almost everybody is on the move and the bustle never stops. Hardly a day goes by without loud reggae music blaring from one of the numerous sound systems. There is always something to celebrate; marriages, births or a traditional festival. But as polling day approaches, it appears the volume has been turned up even louder than ever.
The Gambia elects a new parliament on Thursday and the evenings have been filled with rallies by political parties. Politics in the tiny West African country has undergone a radical transformation. Following presidential elections in December 2016, Yahya Jammeh and his ruling Alliance for Patriotism, Reconciliation, and Construction (APRC) were defeated and forced to step down after 22 years in power. Gambians no longer need fear reprisals if they support the opposition or criticize the government.
Fair and interesting
“We Gambians are very happy that the political situation is making progress. It’s impressive. We are looking forward to a better Gambia,” one woman in teh capital Banjul told DW. Another Banjul resident, a man, said “We are looking forward to a fair one [election] and a very interesting one.”
The Gambia’s electoral system dates back to the colonial era and electoral procedure testifies to its British origins. Gambia’s seven provinces are divided up into 53 constituencies. Each constituency is represented by a seat in the national parliament. 239 candidates from nine parties and 42 independent candidates are competing for the 53 seats. The three biggest parties are the APRC, the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC).
In the provinces – outside Serekunda – individual parties often dominate whole communities. In Foni province, houses are festooned with green banners. Men and women wear green T-shirts and caps. Green is the color of the APRC and of Yahya Jammeh. Foni is the home province of the former president and this meant economic advantages for the people who lived there. In Jammeh’s home village of Kanilai, water and electricity were readily available free of charge. That was highly unusual in The Gambia.
Even though Kanilai residents now have to pay for their utilities, there is still plenty of support for the APRC in many villages in the region. Under Jammeh’s rule, the APRC used its influence in local affairs to secure votes at the ballot box. In addition, the opposition was repressed which prompted seven of the country’s eight parties to boycott the last parliamentary election in 2012. In Thursday’s elections, the APRC will find it difficult to win votes and seats outside its traditional strongholds.
European Union observers
The European Union has sent observers to The Gambia to monitor these elections. Thomas Boserup, deputy head of the EU Election Observer Mission, told DW that its role is to reassure Gambian voters that it is safe to take part in these elections and to support the democratic transition generally. With observers, analysts and members of the European parliament on the ground in The Gambia, the EU is maintaining a visible presence in the country, which is a key partner in the region. This is the first time that the Gambian government and the Electoral Commission have invited EU monitors to the country.
Boserup, a veteran of numerous EU observer missions, said the election campaign was very peaceful. The EU mission will publish its provisional report on the elections on Saturday, two days after the poll.
A small dedicated group of supporters was waiting in Banjul to give President Adama Barrowa noisy and cheerful welcome on his return home from a campaign tour through the provinces. There have been muted complaints that Barrow should be devoting his energy to governing the country rather than canvassing for votes, Election observers believe the turnout will be very high. For the first time in many years, people in The Gambia feel that they will be able to change things by casting their ballots. For that reason, if none other, the elections can already be regarded as a success.
By Vincent Haiges DW Africa