With The Gambia’s presidential election set to take place on December 1, all eyes are on the small West African country.
The vote will see long-serving President Yahya Jammeh pitted against Adama Barrow, a candidate from the opposition coalition.
The political status quo in the Gambia is dominated by Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 military coup and is running for a fifth term as the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party’s candidate. He has won previous elections convincingly, albeit amid allegations of fraud and suppresion of the opposition.
Adama Barrow, meanwhile, was selected as a candidate in October by an unsettled opposition coalition that had recently grouped under the banner of the “Gambian Opposition for Electoral Reform (GOFER)”. Prior to resigning from the party in order to contest the election as a consensus candidate, Barrow led the main opposition, the United Democratic Party (UPD).
The forthcoming election will take place in a context of seemingly growing discontent. This was manifestly evident in April 2016, when a relatively peaceful protest for electoral reform led by the UPD was violently dispersed by the police. This triggered a month-long campaign against Jammeh’s authoritarian rule and fiscal mismanagement, culminating in calls for the leader to step down. Security forces violently suppressed the unrest and arrested several opposition leaders.
Jammeh’s relations with international partners have also been strained, largely because of habitual human rights abuses on the part of his regime. The marginalisation of the Gambia in the international community has led to reduced tourist numbers – a key economic contributor – and, more directly, the suspension of funding and trade opportunities.
These factors, together with the novelty of a unified opposition, seem to indicate that Jammeh will face a more meaningful challenge at the polls than he has previously. But the opposition’s odds are still long. The structures of patronage that Jammeh has established over two decades are countrywide, strong and entrenched. His regime maintains the resources to ensure victory, including those inherent with control over the security forces.
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Furthermore, to oust Jammeh, Barrow will need to overcome huge losses in previous elections; since 1996, Jammeh has won each election by a margin of at least 19%, and the most recent poll – in 2011 – by 54%. The trend indicates an entrenchment of electoral support for Jammeh, as opposed to a move by the electorate towards the opposition.
Further evidence in support of a forecasted Jammeh victory in the upcoming election lies in the inability of the opposition to accomplish any semblance of a concession from the regime during protests earlier this year.
Jammeh, while likely confident he’ll emerging victorious, will ensure that no re-election takes place. Security forces are likely to monitor the polls - this may involve voter intimidation at polling booths. Following an expected Jammeh victory, the opposition is unlikely to call for protests in response to the result; even if they do, opposition supporters will not readily heed such calls, on account of previous crackdowns.
Rather, the longer-term threat to Jammeh is likely to come from within the ruling elite, specifically the state security forces. The incumbent survived coups in 2006 and 2014, and used the aftermath of these to further entrench control over others within the ruling party and the military.
Such an unconstitutional change in dispensation in the immediate post-election period is improbable but, unfortunately for Barrow and opposition interests, more likely than Jammeh losing at the ballot box.
Nick Piper is a director at Signal Risk, an Africa-focused security consultancy. Tweet him @nickpiper_risk