In less than a month’s time, Gambians will again return to the polls, this time around, to elect forty-eight members to the National Assembly, the country’s highest law-making body. Compared to the flurry of campaign activities that preceded the last September polls, this one looks like a non-event. Apart from the ruling party, that announced its list of candidates three days ago, the opposition has been remarkably quite about their plans for the January 25th polls and few know who the prospective non-APRC candidates will be for the different constituencies.
NADD (National Alliance for Democracy and Development) have said that they have already identified seven candidates for seven constituencies, but the UDP leader, Lawyer Ousainou Darboe, recently told reporters that his party is not yet completed the selection process. Nomination is scheduled for the 4th of January 2007. If the politicians are a little weary of the elections, the electorates seem to be ignoring the polls almost totally. The mood conforms the big drop in voter turnout in the last elections. Observers are yet to agree on what factors turned voters away from the polls so massively in September 2006.
Some believe that the split that occurred in NADD in February 2006 might have caused a frustration among a large number of voters. But just after the split, in May, the Kombo East by-election also saw some surprisingly low voter turnout, but it saw the combined votes of the two opposition candidates surpassing that of the APRC in its own traditional stronghold. The voters who turned away seemed to be from across the political party divide. In September however, most of those who shied away from the polls seemed to have come from the opposition. So the evidences available are quite ambiguous can be given diametrically opposite interpretations.
However, politicians of all the different parties, members of the country’s weak civil society institutions, and other citizens should be concerned about voter apathy, investigate the underlying factors and draw up plans to combat it. Some have been blaming the electoral system itself but The Gambia Journal disagrees. Though we are not claiming that the system is faultless, we do not subscribe to the idea that voters have been turn-off by factors inherent in the country’s electoral system.
The Elections Decree, 1996, Decree, No. 78 Chapter V of the Constitution regulates elections in The Gambia. Section 42 of the Constitution creates the Independent Electoral Commission and Section 43 spells out its functions. The functions include the conduct and supervision of registration of voters, as well as the conduct and supervision of all elections, including presidential and parliamentary. It is also responsible for the registration of political parties.
The President appoints members of the Commission in consultation with the Judicial Service Commission. Security of tenure is guaranteed. However, the President had prior to the 2001 elections dismissed the Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (Reverend Bishop Solomon Tilewa Johnson) and a member of the Commission (Imam Alhagie Saja Fatty) shortly before the elections without giving any reason and without following the procedures laid down in Section 42(6).
Again in the run-up to the last September elections, President Jammeh dismissed the IEC Chairman, Mr. Ndondi Njie, and several of his commissioners and even had them detained at the NIA for some unspecified reasons. Several IEC employees spent about a week in detention in the run-up to last September elections after they got embroiled in verbal argument with some APRC supporters at a registration point.
This controversial interference with the Independent Electoral Commission by the President shortly before the elections in which he was a candidate did cast a shadow on the entire elections. Irregularities such as allowing people whose names did not appear in the register of voters but had voter’s cards to have their names inserted in the registers and to vote were discovered. The Independent Electoral Commission did not deny this fact but attempted to give reasons for their wrongdoing. The chairman tried to justify it by saying that those people's names were left out of the register during the compilation because the Commission was then under intense pressure to finalize the list. Therefore, he said it would be unfair not to allow them to vote as it was never their fault not to be included in the list.
The fact that the Commission members are appointed by a person whose election it supervises under our current political dispensation does not augur well for transparency. It is clear that a neutral body should be responsible for such appointments and that stakeholders should be consulted before decisions are made on appointments.
The Electoral laws prohibit the use of government resources such as vehicles and other state machinery for election campaign purposes. However, the APRC Party has disregarded the operations of this law and uses state resources with impunity. The laws which place restrictions on civil servants' participation in political activities while holding public office are not enforced by the Government. In practice, every public servant is expected to sympathize with the Government and opposition sympathizers have been openly victimized after elections. Some have had their services terminated without any reason being given.
There is a long-drawn case in the High Court; the case of Haddijatou Sanneh vs. Gambia International Airlines Civil Suit Nr. 73/2002. The plaintiff's husband, a member of the opposition United Democratic Party and a former Accountant General of the Government actively campaigned for the opposition party. The plaintiff, who was an employee of the Gambia International Airlines, a company owned by the Government, got her services terminated immediately after the elections even though she did not associate herself with the political party.
There are no rules regulating party funding and expenditure except that the amendment of Section 104 contained in the Elections (Amendment) Act, 2001 introduced a new subsection (7) which states:
"(7) A Political Party shall not receive any contribution from any person who is
not a citizen of The Gambia or from any corporate or unincorporated body",
This new sub-section is considered to be unworkable since the Independent Electoral Commission does not have the capacity to monitor party funds. There is no mandatory requirement for periodic disclosures of party assets and revenue sources, although the Independent Electoral Commission may require any political party to make disclosures of party assets and revenues whenever it so desires.
While Section 104 of the Constitution prohibits funding of political parties by non-Gambians, the reality is that political parties, including the ruling party, have been receiving funding from everyone willing to give them anything, and that includes non-Gambians.
During the campaign for the last presidential elections, for instance, the ruling party received some material assistance from a Taiwanese businessman resident in the United States. Mr. Tarik Musa of TK Motors, the Taiwanese Embassy in Banjul and Mr. Muhamed Barsi, the Lebanese owner of the Global Trading Company, are known to have made handsome contributions towards last September’s APRC electoral campaign. There is no doubt that the opposition parties are also getting some assistance from sources other than Gambians. However, this would be extremely hard to verify since political parties do not publish their accounts or sources of funding.
While regionalism or ethnicity has never played any significant role in the Gambian political scene in the past, it seems to be increasingly evident that this is less so in the past few years, particularly since the assumption of power of the present regime. In all the elections of the Second Republic for instance, the people of Foni, President Yahya Jammeh's home area, insisted that no opposition party would be allowed to hold meetings in the area, and those who defied it were intimidated and their meetings were disrupted. It is also quite evident that the members of the president's own ethnic group, the Jola, massively voted for him, and are always quite hostile to any member of the opposition.
All these are flaws, perhaps inherent in the system and capable of impeding the prevalence of a leveled playing field, but they can subvert the will of a sufficiently determined electorate. The question is who should be responsible for cultivating such an interest, concern and determination of the Gambian people? We think the politicians and the media, but also equally, concerned citizens and civil society.
A political analyst talking to The Gambia Journal under conditions of anonymity predicts an even lower voter turn out for the January elections.
Arguing that Jammeh has a captive reserve of voters constituting about a quarter of the electorate who would vote for him and his APRC party come rain or shine, he said that a low voter turn out always favors the ruling party. He said only the coming in of new breed of politicians, more imaginative, courageous and conversant with the plight of the electorates can safe The Gambia and Gambians from this terminal status quo. He added that the recent failed experiment with coalition building has burnt most, if not all, the major opposition figures. He said, “Mr. Lamin Waa Juwara was right more than he could imagine when he said that withdrawing from NADD meant political suicide for any politician.
He added that the present political situation is not good for Gambian democracy. Many people opposed to President Yahya Jammeh may not be interested in the polls anymore but this does not mean they have lost interest in politics and who governs the country. More and more people who have become frustrated with the political process are instead quietly hoping for extra-judicial process of political changes. Such hopes, he said are a dangerous source of political instability as that believe can be contagious and men in hunger for political power can feel they are legitimized by the growing number of people who no longer trust the available democratic dispensation.
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