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Presidential vote-count starts in Gambia in key test for stability

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By Reuters
Gambians vote with marbles in key test for stability
Gambians vote with marbles in key test for stability   -   Copyright  Thomson Reuters 2021

By Pap Saine and Bate Felix

BANJUL -Polls closed in Gambia on Saturday after citizens cast their vote for president in a tightly fought race that is seen as a test of democratic progress.

It was the West African country’s first democratic election since former president Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office in 2016.

Jammeh, who was defeated by an opposition coalition that backed the current president, Adama Barrow, fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after refusing to accept defeat

Gambia uses a unique voting system – marbles dropped into each candidate’s ballot drum – to avoid spoilt ballots in a nation with a high illiteracy rate.

Barrow, a 56-year-old former security guard and property developer, cast his vote in Banjul, accompanied by his two wives.

“I’m happy to see a large turnout from Gambian voters,” he said afterwards, adding that he was confident of victory.

Results are expected by Sunday under the simple majority system, but provisional figures will start trickling in late on Saturday and overnight.

Barrow is facing five rivals including his former political mentor, Ousainou Darboe, 73, who is seen as his main challenger.

There were no reports of disruptions to the vote and Darboe called on his supporters in the tourism-dependent nation to remain calm.

“Remember, we are in the tourism season, the slightest disturbance in this country will drive away all the tourists,” he said.

Nearly 1 million people from a population of 2.5 million are registered to vote in Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country.

“I want to see a better Gambia, a far better Gambia than the previous years,” said civil servant Bubacarr Kanteh, 39, outside a polling station.

Before the polls opened, officials carried the voting drums outside to show the queues of voters that they were empty.

Other candidates include Essa Mbye Faal, who served as chief counsel of Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission that chronicled the abuses of Jammeh’s rule, and Mama Kandeh, who came third in 2016 and is backed by Jammeh.

As campaigning wrapped up on Thursday, hundreds of jubilant Barrow supporters gathered in downtown Banjul for a final rally, hoping another Barrow term would secure stability as Gambia seeks to put 22 years of Jammeh rule behind it.

Critics, however, say Barrow has broken his promises, pointing to how he backtracked on a pledge to serve only three years after winning in 2016. Barrow has argued the constitution requires him to serve out a full five-year term.