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article imageGambians head to polls for first post-Jammeh vote

By Jennifer O'Mahony and Emil Touray (AFP)     Apr 6, 2017 in World

Gambians head to the polls on Thursday for the first time since the departure of longtime leader Yahya Jammeh, with multiple parties poised to enter parliament after 22 years of effective one-party rule.

Several opposition parties united to form a coalition in December to oust Jammeh from power and deliver flagbearer Adama Barrow to victory as the new president.

But internal tensions caused that coalition to break apart, meaning nine parties will run in Thursday's legislative polls including Jammeh's Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) and the strongest traditional opposition force, the United Democratic Party (UDP).

They face a significant threat from the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC), a youth-led party which did not join the governing coalition, and whose leader Mama Kandeh came third in the presidential poll.

More than 880,000 Gambians are eligible to vote, with the polls open from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm.

The first results are expected during the evening and a full set due by late morning on Friday.

There is no formal opinion polling in the tiny west African nation, making it difficult to establish voting intentions, but the scarcity of APRC rallies which once dominated every street during campaigning suggests voters are unlikely to give them the near-total majority of past elections.

There are 53 seats up for grabs in The Gambia's National Assembly, five more than in 2012, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

Five extra places are appointed by the president to give a total of 58 seats in the legislative chamber, which was long derided as a rubber stamp for Jammeh's executive orders.

- Roll of the marble -

Gambian polling agent prepare voting barrels at a polling station in Banjul on April 5  2017  a day ...
Gambian polling agent prepare voting barrels at a polling station in Banjul on April 5, 2017, a day ahead of legislative elections

The African Union, regional ECOWAS bloc and the European Union have all sent observers to monitor voters casting their ballots with The Gambia's unique system, where marbles are dropped into coloured metal barrels representing different candidates.

Miroslav Poche, chief EU observer and a Czech MEP, told AFP that the IEC had showed its impartiality under great pressure by standing up to Jammeh when he lost the vote last year and filed legal action against the body.

"The IEC has proved itself during the December 2016 presidential elections," he said, but added that the marble drum system was a "big challenge" for his technical support team.

It is the first time the EU has sent a fully-fledged observer mission to The Gambia, and it has bankrolled the vote at a time when state coffers are almost empty.

West African troops remain on Gambian soil three months after Jammeh's departure, and will stay until Barrow is satisfied security service reforms have removed rogue elements from its ranks.

A Gambian wears a T-shirt with the electoral poster of her leader during a rally in Banjul on April ...
A Gambian wears a T-shirt with the electoral poster of her leader during a rally in Banjul on April 4, 2017

Experts say that while the result could go feasibly in any direction, the relative novelty of a truly democratic election might distract from the unified front required to carry out the comprehensive overhaul of the state promised by Barrow.

"Given Jammeh's stranglehold over Gambian politics for the past 22 years, the country's opposition parties are inexperienced to the democratic process and relatively weak institutionally," said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the US-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

"Once Jammeh was defeated and departed the country (under pressure from ECOWAS), the competing agendas and political aspirations of the respective political actors in the opposition were bound to emerge," he added.

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