Gambians voted Thursday in a parliamentary election that was expected to end two decades of domination by the party of former leader Yahya Jammeh.
The vote was crucial for the transition promised by President Adama Barrow, who beat Jammeh in December elections. Barrow has promised a path toward reconciliation and greater freedoms in this tiny West African country. Jammeh’s government was long accused of rights abuses.
Many Gambians were eager to flex their new freedoms but have feared that if the new parliament doesn’t strike the right balance, their December vote could be compromised.
More than 1.8 million Gambians were ruled for 22 years by Jammeh, whose refusal to leave power brought regional countries to the brink of a military intervention. His flight into exile in January was a dramatic moment for many in Africa, where a number of leaders have clung to power for decades.
Voters filed slowly through polling centers to place marbles in blue, pink, purple, green or yellow ballot bins, each representing a different party. Voting stations closed around 5 p.m. and ballot workers started counting.
“We have done a good work during the electoral campaign,” said Fatoumata Jawara, a United Democratic Party candidate in Talinding, who said she was hoping for good voter turnout despite a slow start.
Jawara, who led protests last year and said she had been subjected to torture by the now-defunct National Intelligence Agency, said she was confident about a victory in her constituency, which had been a stronghold of Jammeh’s ruling party for the past two decades.
Some 886,000 Gambians were registered to vote on 239 candidates for 53 constituencies. The president then nominates five additional seats, including speaker and deputy speaker, according to electoral officials.
The eight opposition parties that backed Barrow were running separately against the former Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction ruling party, the Gambia Democratic Congress and some 42 independent candidates.
If coalition parties do not win a majority, it could affect Barrow’s ability to govern and carry out the transition policies he has promised. Gambians also worry that if Barrow’s United Democratic Party takes a majority, it could repeat the past by having effective one-party rule.
Halifa Sallah, who has served as the coalition spokesman and special adviser to Barrow, said Gambia has come a long way.
“We need a National Assembly that can accompany transformation, a National Assembly capable of carrying legal and constitution reforms,” he said. “What I am seeing is openness of the democratic process. I do not believe parties will control the process anymore.”
Sallah himself was running as a candidate in Serrekunda Central for the People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism.
If candidates from his independent party are elected, he said, “we are going to make sure the Executive does what it is supposed to do.”