The Gambia holds its first election Thursday since the downfall of longtime leader Yahya Jammeh, with expectations high that new lawmakers will overhaul a national assembly once derided as a mere rubberstamp.
Gambians complain that under Jammeh, who ruled for 22 years, laws were often made by executive decree and buttressed by legislation much later on, if at all.
The 239 registered candidates representing nine different political parties on Tuesday end campaigning for the 48 seats up for election in the Banjul legislature.
Five seats are also appointed by the president, totalling 53 spots in the tiny west African nation’s parliament, and with just 886,000 registered voters according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), every ballot matters.
Awa Lowe, a resident of Kanifing, a Banjul suburb, told AFP expectations were high that the new parliament would ensure true accountability for government decisions.
“The next parliament will not be a rubberstamp National Assembly that passes any bill that comes before parliamentarians,” Lowe told AFP.
“Parliament will be diverse and that is what will make it interesting. No party would have the numerical strength to pass bills that are not in line with the interest of the people,” Lowe added.
– Altered landscape –
The landscape of Gambian politics could not have shifted more dramatically since the last legislative elections in 2012, when Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) took 43 seats, with a large number uncontested due to an opposition boycott.
Among the parties running this year, the United Democratic Party (UDP) is fielding the greatest number of candidates after long being seen as the strongest opposition force in Gambian politics.
Alagie Darboe, deputy administrative secretary of the UDP who is standing for a seat in The Gambia’s West Coast Region, said the party was aiming to win in 44 constituencies.
“The support we are getting from the electorate during the campaign is a clear indication that we are going to win,” he told AFP.
President Adama Barrow, who won December’s presidential race, was a former UDP treasurer who had resigned to run as the candidate of an unprecedented opposition coalition.
After a drawn-out crisis caused by Jammeh’s initial refusal to step down, mediation efforts by west African leaders and the threat of military intervention eventually delivered the country’s first ever democratic transition.
Barrow’s cabinet is made up of the heads of seven different political parties, all of which will field candidates in Thursday’s poll.
The president had initially said the opposition coalition was a “family” and would run again as a group in the legislative poll, but internal tensions broke apart the agreement.
As a result, parties whose leaders govern together as ministers will be pitted against each other at the ballot box, stoking tensions that some close to the government say could play into the hands of the APRC.
Yankuba Colley, the APRC’s campaign chief, said the party knew mistakes were made during the presidential election, but added that his candidates were working hard to show it was still a vital force.
“We are optimistic that we are going to defeat our opponents in the 29 constituencies (where) we fielded candidates,” he told AFP.
“Some of our party militants felt they made errors in the presidential elections,” he added. “Some of our militants thought APRC was dead… they are now convinced the party is alive.”
Although much has changed since the last vote, one peculiarly Gambian institution remains firmly in place.
Gambians vote with marbles dropped into coloured metal barrels representing the different candidates, and despite rumours of reform, the system will be used again for the legislative elections, IEC chairman Alieu Momar Njie told AFP.