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Gambians vote in first presidential election since Jammeh era

  • December 04, 2021

Gambians are due to head to the polls to select their next president, in a highly anticipated vote seen as a test of the country’s democratic transition.

President Adama Barrow faces five other candidates as he seeks re-election in what is expected to be a close race. Political veteran Ousainou Darboe is seen as the main opposition candidate.

Polls are due to open at 08:00 GMT and set to close at 17:00 GMT. Initial results in the one-round election could be announced as early as Sunday.

The vote will be is the first since longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh was forced into exile in January 2017 after Barrow, relatively unknown at the time, defeated him at the ballot box. His departure to Equatorial Guinea ended a 22-year rule marked by a litany of alleged crimes, abuses and financial plunder.

Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from the capital, Banjul, said voter enthusiasm was “high”.

“Officials hope this enthusiasm will translate into a high voter turnout, which could be possible, as Gambians savour the freedom to vote and express themselves without fear of intimidation.”

The Gambia, a sliver of land about 480km (300 miles) long with a coastline of about 60km (37 miles) on the Atlantic Ocean, is surrounded by Senegal. It is home to more than two million people, about half of whom live on less than $1.90 per day.

Many voters are hoping for an improvement in their living standards after the tourism-dependent economy was dealt a severe blow by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barrow is running on a continuity ticket, pointing to infrastructure projects completed under his watch, as well as increased civil liberties.

Each presidential candidate has their own ballot box at Gambian polls, and voters choose their preferred politician by dropping a marble inside one of the boxes.

The unusual voting method is a response to low literacy rates in the country.

An entertainer addresses the crowd during an election rally in support of Ousainou Darboe, former Gambian vice president and leader of the main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), in Banjul on Thursday [Guy Peterson/AFP]

Jammeh’s political shadow

Questions over Jammeh’s continuing role in politics, and his possible return from exile, have been central themes in the run-up to the election.

The 56 year old, who had seized power in a 1994 coup, retains significant political support in The Gambia and has sought to influence the vote.

In a string of speeches by telephone, Jammeh has urged crowds of rapt listeners not to vote for Barrow but back a coalition run by opposition candidate Mama Kandeh, who came third in 2016.

Another political camp, however, is pushing for criminal charges against Jammeh for alleged abuses committed under his rule.

Barrow set up a truth commission to probe the alleged abuses after coming to office.

The panel heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses about state-sanctioned death squads, “witch hunts” and forcing bogus cures on AIDS patients, among other abuses.

In November, the commission recommended the government pursue criminal charges, in a final report that it handed to Barrow without releasing it to the public.

The names of the officials against whom charges were recommended were also not released.

Criminal charges are politically sensitive given Jammeh’s following, however.

There are also growing concerns about Barrow’s enthusiasm for prosecutions, despite previous rhetoric that was tough on Jammeh.

In September, Barrow’s NPP party announced a pact with Jammeh’s old party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, in a controversial move that was viewed as an electoral ploy.

Jammeh said that decision was taken without his knowledge, and his supporters have formed a rival party. But rights groups fear the pact will diminish the chances of a trial.

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