Gabon polls reveal a flawed electoral system

The slow vote-counting process created tension and uncertainty, and the opposition now strongly disputes the outcome.

The presidential elections in Gabon have been keeping those following the outcome of the race on the edge of their seats for several days. The vote took place on Saturday 26 August, but results were only announced late on Wednesday afternoon.

According to the final tally announced by the minister of the interior, the incumbent Ali Bongo won by 49.8%, while his rival, Jean Ping, got 48.23%

Just over 628 000 people took part in the vote in the Central African country of 1.8 million inhabitants.

The opposition strongly disputes this outcome and says votes were manipulated – especially in Bongo’s stronghold of Haut-Ogooué, where the incumbent got over 90% of the votes. Following the announcement of the results, opposition supporters reportedly torched a part of the Parliament building in Libreville – an ominous sign of possible escalating post-election violence.

Ping (73), a former foreign minister who headed the African Union Commission between 2008 and 2012, was confident earlier in the race. He told the media on Sunday, 29 August – a day after the vote and before any results were released – that he had won the elections and that his predecessor should accept it. He repeated this statement on Tuesday saying that his opponent, Bongo (57) should prepare to hand over power.

According to the final tally, Bongo won by 49.8%, while Jean Ping got 48.23%

Was Ping being undemocratic, or did he know something ordinary Gabonese didn't? According to Jean-Baptiste Placca, well-known Franco-African commentator, Ping was part of the system for so long that he knew full well something had to be done to prevent the regime from cheating. 'By announcing early that he had won, he prepared his supporters to defend him in case the regime grabs power,' he told ISS Today telephonically from Paris.

One of the problems with the electoral system in Gabon and other Central African states, like Cameroon, is that results aren't released progressively. This increases the possibility for electoral fraud. Instead, all results are collected at one central location and are then announced by the Permanent National Electoral Commission (CENAP). ‘In many other African countries, results are released progressively – which makes it far more difficult to cheat,’ Placca said.

A lot of confusion surrounded the tallying of the votes. By early afternoon on Wednesday, it was still impossible to get a clear view of who would be the winning candidate. This was despite the regular updates, with graphs and pie charts to boot, distributed by unofficial vote-counters on Twitter. The government dismissed these.

The opposition in Gabon strongly disputes the outcome and says votes were manipulated

While final results were supposed to be announced at 17h00 on Tuesday, the main eight members of the CENAP met until the early hours to deliberate. Observers were prevented from attending the final vote count by the CENAP.

This caused huge uncertainty and tension among Gabonese, who were stocking up on necessities, fearing a violent showdown between the supporters of both candidates. In 2009, when Ali Bongo was elected following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, violence broke out in several parts of the country.

Observers of the elections were scathing in their judgment of the uneven playing field in the run-up to the vote. They say the incumbent benefited from greater access to the media, and had far greater financial means than all the other candidates. In its preliminary report on the elections, the European Union (EU) also stated that the process lacked transparency and urged the CENAP to publish all the results of the various circumscriptions.

EU parliamentarian for Italy, Cécile Kyenge – who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo – wrote in the Paris-based Jeune Afrique that the system has huge disadvantages. She noted that parties were not given sufficient access to the electoral lists and the CENAP were ‘marginalised’ in the run-up to the vote. She urged Gabonese political parties to engage in a ‘real dialogue’ to dispel tensions between them.

Observers were prevented from attending the final vote count in Gabon

The government lashed out against the statements by the EU observers, saying it had overstepped its mandate.

The African Union (AU) – which sent 75 observers, of which 12 are long-time observers – congratulated the Gabonese for holding peaceful elections.

‘The AU Commission Chairperson urges all political actors to respect the will of the Gabonese people as expressed in the polls, by accepting the results. She encourages the use of legal and non-violent means to resolve any claims or disputes that may arise,’ said the AU in a statement. There is no mention of whether the elections were considered free and fair by the AU.

Though a tricky task, the international community could play a role in the post-election period in Gabon. One of the major international actors, France, has been involved in politics in Gabon ever since independence, and has been supportive of the rule by the Bongo family, who have been in power for close to 50 years.

It is clear, however, that the French government will be criticised whichever side it chooses to support, given its baggage in Gabon. Shortly after the vote, the French Socialist Party said that it wished for change, which would be 'a sign of a healthy democracy and an example'.

This premature statement showed support for Ping and indicated that the socialist government of President François Hollande would not want to be seen to support the incumbent, as it did in the contested vote in 2009. Many Gabonese saw the statement by the Socialist Party as an example of the infamous Francafrique; the shadowy links between French business and African politics.

The international community could play a meaningful role in Gabon's post-election period

Former editor and commentator Seidik Abba, who is from Niger, however told ISS Today that there was a clear difference between what the party declared and what the French government said after the vote, adopting much more of a wait-and-see attitude. He says France is keen to improve its image following much criticism over its stance in the last two elections in Francophone Africa; in the Republic of Congo and Chad. In both cases, France accepted the outcome of the elections, despite strong allegations of fraud and an uneven playing field.

‘The problem with France’s Africa policy is that there are several centres of power. There is the Socialist Party, the Quay d’Orsay [the Department of Foreign Affairs] and then the lobby of Ali Bongo, which is quite strong in some circles, like the defence ministry,’ says Abba. Ping said in his statement on Sunday that he had informed the French and American embassies of the situation.

It is clear that if Bongo’s win is confirmed, he will have his work cut out for him to reform the electoral system and ensure economic growth that benefits all Gabonese.

While Bongo, the former minister of defence, introduced a number of reforms to attract investment and improve the country’s infrastructure, it still hasn’t been enough to alleviate poverty in this oil-rich country. The decline in oil prices has also prompted the government to diversify the economy by placing more emphasis on agriculture and tourism. Some believed that if Ping became president, he would have been more likely to listen to what ordinary people have to say and try and improve their standard of living. While Gabon’s per capita income is one of the highest in Africa – over US$17 000, according to latest estimates – the benefits from the oil exports are still in the hands of a few.

‘In Libreville, you see villas that could be found in Beverly Hills right next to shacks made of wood or mud where people live without water or electricity,’ said Placca. He added that corruption remains one of the biggest problems, and is likely to continue to plague the country, regardless of which government is in place.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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