Gambia faces key test for democracy in decisive presidential election | Africa | DW | 03.12.2021

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Gambia faces key test for democracy in decisive presidential election

Gambians will cast their ballots on December 4 in a hotly contested presidential election. Observers view the polls as a crucial litmus test for Gambia's democracy.

Watch video 02:38

Gambians set to vote in presidential election

At a campaign rally organized by President Adama Barrow's National People's Party (NPP) in Gambia's capital Banjul, jubilant supporters showered praise on their candidate.

"I can see that in the last five years, we have had democracy in our country. People can speak freely," Souleymane Mane, an ardent Barrow supporter, told DW.

"Adama Barrow loves people a lot. He gives chances. We want to be with Adama Barrow for life," Binta Fey, another NPP member, said.

But for Barrow's critics, the president has broken his most important promise. When Barrow came to power in 2017, he vowed to stay for three years. His decision to run for reelection has polarized the West African nation.

"This year's election is significant in many ways. So many things are at stake," said Essa Njie, a political scientist at the University of The Gambia and the Center for Research and Policy Development. 

A man wears a traditional mask during the final campaign rally for the NPP in Banjul on December 2, 2021

During a final NPP campaign rally in Banjul, a man wears a traditional mask

Reforming Gambia

President Barrow touts his political reforms and development record. His NPP boasts about the contribution he made to civil liberties, as well as improvements made to the nation's infrastructure since he took over. His campaign is confident that Gambians will grant him another term to complete his vision.

But for Njie, Gambia's December 2021 election is above all an opportunity to consolidate democratic gains, and for the electorate to hold the government to account based on the 2016 promises.

"The promises were reforms, institutional and legal reforms," Njie said, adding that few, if any, had actually been made. "We are voting, sadly, without a new constitution, without a new electoral law. We are heading toward the 2021 election without serious security reforms in this country, and without civil service reform."

Doubts over electoral system

When Gambians enter a voting booth, they do not mark a piece of paper with a cross. Instead, they stand in front of a row of multicolored drums, deciding which to toss their glass marble into.

The drums are painted in different colors for voters to identify each candidate. Once the marble is cast, a small bell sounds as a measure to prevent people from smuggling in extra marbles and voting more than once.

Painted drums with election posters

Gambian voters use marbles to pick their preferred candidate

Gambia has a simple majority system where the winner takes all. If a candidate wins by even a single vote, their victory is sealed.

Gambia implemented the system in the 1960s to ensure that everyone has a voice in a country with a low literacy rate.

The voting system — unique as it may sound — was solid enough to send Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled Gambia for more than two decades with an iron fist, packing.

However, Omar Wally, a DW correspondent in Banjul, said voters are wary about the ability of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to conduct a credible election.

"The reason why people think they will not be able to deliver free, fair, and transparent elections is because of their previous record," Wally said, pointing to the 2016 election, which Jammeh lost.

A man writes on a notebook

Gambia has one of the lowest literacy rates on the continent

"They announced the results, and days later, they said there were errors in the results, which led to a political impasse." Jammeh initially accepted the results, but later changed his mind.

When Gambia held parliamentary elections in 2017, the electoral commission made similar mistakes. Even during voter registration, there were errors, Wally added.

For its part, Gambia's electoral body has vowed to conduct a free, fair and transparent election.

The main contenders

Six candidates are battling for the presidency. None are women, despite 57% of Gambia's 962,157 registered voters being female.

Analysts say it's a two-horse race, between President Adama Barrow and his former deputy Ousainou Darboe.

Split photo showing Ousainou Darboe and Adama Barrow

Analysts say the race is between former Vice President Ousainou Darbor (left) and President Adama Barrow

The 73-year-old opposition leader is running under the United Democratic Party (UDP). He has promised justice for those who suffered under the Jammeh regime and economic renewal for the whole country.

To his supporters, Darboe represents change, and they believe he can keep those promises that Barrow broke.

"Our future president should focus on the education sector. Because right now at the University of Gambia, the tuition fee is very expensive, not everyone can afford it," Fatou B. Sanyang, a university student, told DW.

Jammeh's shadow looms large

According to political analyst Njie, Gambia struggles with complex challenges ranging from unemployment — especially among young people — as well as issues with health care, education, infrastructure and the economy.

Gambia's ex-President Yahya Jammeh

Ex-ruler Yahya Jammeh still enjoys massive support, particularly in his native Foni region

But another challenge that Gambia must contend with is Jammeh's political interference.

"Yahya Jammeh remains an influential figure in Gambia's politics. Remember, he ruled this country for 22 years," Njie said.

Throughout his rule, Jammeh enjoyed widespread support among a significant portion of the population, especially tribesmen in his home region of Foni. "That is why some people say [authorities] can not guarantee the security of this country, with Jammeh still interfering in Gambian politics."

For Njie, this year's election represents a decisive moment. "A moment that Gambians should be able to vote, to either solve the complex challenges they face or continue to live in the situation."

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Fred Muvunyi contributed to this article.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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