Af­ter 22 years, Gam­bians can vote in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions

Par­ties di­vided af­ter dic­ta­tor Jam­meh ex­iled

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY ABDOULIE JOHN AND CAR­LEY PETESCH

BANJUL, GAM­BIA | Many Gam­bians hope to se­cure a tran­si­tion from decades of dic­ta­tor­ship to democ­racy Thurs­day as they vote in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, the first since long­time leader Yahya Jam­meh flew into ex­ile in Jan­uary. But some worry the coali­tion that put new Pres­i­dent Adama Bar­row in place is al­ready see­ing cracks.

The Na­tional Assem­bly vote ush­ers in a new era for the tiny West African coun­try, whose lead­ers say they want to steer the na­tion to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. More than 1.8 mil­lion Gam­bians were ruled for 22 years by Mr. Jam­meh, whose gov­ern­ment was ac­cused of hu­man rights abuses. He lost the De­cem­ber elec­tion to Mr. Bar­row, who was backed by a coali­tion of eight op­po­si­tion par­ties. For weeks, Mr. Jam­meh re­fused to leave power in a po­lit­i­cal stand­off that brought re­gional coun­tries to the brink of a mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

Mr. Jam­meh’s even­tual flight into ex­ile was a dra­matic moment for many in Africa, where a num­ber of lead­ers have clung to power for decades.

The new gov­ern­ment un­der Mr. Bar­row, a one­time real es­tate de­vel­oper, has promised to right the wrongs of the past, set­ting up a truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process. Many Gam­bians fear that if the new par­lia­ment doesn’t strike the right bal­ance, their vote in De­cem­ber could be com­pro­mised.

The eight op­po­si­tion par­ties that backed Mr. Bar­row as a coali­tion are now run­ning as sep­a­rate par­ties against the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Mr. Jam­meh’s former rul­ing party and the one op­po­si­tion party that didn’t join the coali­tion, the Gam­bia Demo­cratic Congress. They also face some 42 in­de­pen­dent can­di­dates.

Some worry that di­vi­sions among the par­ties that united to oust Mr. Jam­meh are start­ing to show.

“I don’t still un­der­stand why party lead­ers let this hap­pen,” said one Gam­bian, Ebrima Jobe, shak­ing his head. He said he was dis­heart­ened that af­ter all the ef­forts to form a coali­tion to end Mr. Jam­meh’s rule, the par­ties are act­ing in a way that could threaten the fu­ture that Gam­bians wanted.

Isatou Jar­jue, a mar­ket ven­dor, agreed. “I am con­fused by the lack of unity,” she said, adding that only prayers could help the coali­tion par­ties emerge vic­to­ri­ous in the Na­tional Assem­bly polls.

The coun­try’s elec­toral body has en­dorsed 239 can­di­dates who are con­test­ing for 53 seats. Five more will be oc­cu­pied by par­lia­men­tary mem­bers the pres­i­dent nom­i­nates.

In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral Com­mis­sion chair­man Alieu Mo­marr Njai said Gam­bia’s new­found free­doms and the lower cost to be­come a can­di­date mean that Gam­bians have a wider choice in Thurs­day’s vote.

If coali­tion par­ties do not win a ma­jor­ity, it could af­fect Mr. Bar­row’s abil­ity to gov­ern and carry out the tran­si­tion poli­cies he has promised. Gam­bians also worry that if Mr. Bar­row’s United Demo­cratic Party takes a ma­jor­ity, they could re­peat the past by hav­ing ef­fec­tive one-party rule.

The former rul­ing Al­liance for Pa­tri­otic Re­ori­en­ta­tion and Con­struc­tion party, which dom­i­nated par­lia­ment for more than two decades, has in­di­cated that its abil­ity to mobilize the peo­ple re­mains in­tact.

“The APRC will con­tinue to be the big­gest po­lit­i­cal party in the coun­try,” said Kan­i­f­ing Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil Mayor Yankuba Col­ley, the party’s na­tional mo­bi­lizer.

But Mr. Col­ley ac­knowl­edged the party’s hu­man rights record will haunt it, adding: “We learned from our mis­takes.”

Still, some Gam­bians ex­press en­thu­si­asm just at the prospect of an open vote.

Awa Lowe, a res­i­dent of Kan­i­f­ing, a Banjul sub­urb, told the Agence France-Presse news ser­vice that ex­pec­ta­tions were high that the new par­lia­ment would en­sure true ac­count­abil­ity for gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions. “The next par­lia­ment will not be a rub­ber stamp Na­tional Assem­bly that passes any bill that comes be­fore par­lia­men­tar­i­ans,” said Ms. Lowe.

“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,” she added.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Gam­bians wait to vote at a polling sta­tion in Banjul, Gam­bia. Many hope to se­cure a tran­si­tion from dic­ta­tor­ship to democ­racy as they vote in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, the first since leader Yahya Jam­meh flew into ex­ile.

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