Voters headed to the polls Thursday in Gambia for parliamentary elections that are expected to end two decades of domination by the party of former leader Yahya Jammeh.
The vote is 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 are eager to flex their new freedoms, but fear that if the new parliament doesn’t strike the right balance, their December vote could be compromised.
Early turnout was slow “but we expect more people in the coming hours,” said Lamin Fofana, an assistant at Serrekunda’s largest polling center.
Some 886,000 Gambians are registered to vote on 239 candidates for 53 constituencies. Barrow then nominates five additional seats, including speaker and deputy speaker, according to electoral officials.
The eight opposition parties that backed Barrow are now 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.
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 eventual flight into exile in January was a dramatic moment for many in Africa, where a number of leaders have clung to power for decades.