The Gambia’s democratic transition is facing a litmus test

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be the most consequential in The Gambia’s history.

In this January 26, 2017 file photo Gambian President Adama Barrow is seen as he waves at his supporters after he arrives from Dakar, in Banjul, Gambia [Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

Almost five years ago, in December 2016, The Gambia brought authoritarian President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year reign to an end through a democratic election. Since then, despite facing numerous obstacles and challenges, the West African country has managed to strengthen its democracy and widen its political space significantly. However, The Gambia’s democratic transition will face its toughest test to date on December 4, when the country holds its first presidential and parliamentary elections since the departure of Jammeh.

When current President Adama Barrow came to power, he had promised that he would call for new elections after three years. However, he rescinded that promise in 2019, and announced that he intends to serve a full five-year term as prescribed in the constitution. This led to minor protests, but did not stop Barrow from taking the necessary steps to consolidate his power.

In December 2019, Barrow established the National People’s Party (NPP) as a vehicle to seek a second term in the upcoming election. Since then, the new party has managed to garner significant popular support and increased Barrow’s chances of a second term.

Last month, Barrow made one last move to expand his support base before the crucial election and announced an alliance between his NPP and Yahya Jammeh’s APRC.

The tactical alliance between the two parties has ruffled some feathers in the country. Many see the move as a sign of Barrow’s inability to leave Jammeh’s repressive legacy behind and open a new democratic chapter in Gambian politics. Moreover, Gambians who had been victimised by Jammeh and his supporters over the last two decades perceived the move as a stab in the back and a denial of their suffering.

The NPP-APRC alliance also gives rise to fears that Jammeh, who has been in exile in Equatorial Guinea since January 2017, may soon return to the country and reinsert himself in Gambian politics. The specifics of the deal between the NPP and APRC have not been made public, but many suspect Barrow has agreed to grant Jammeh amnesty for the crimes he committed during his reign in return for political support. There are understandable fears that such an agreement would hinder The Gambia’s efforts for democratisation and transactional justice.

Barrow’s apparent desire to hold on to power at any cost, the controversial NPP-APRC alliance and Jammeh’s possible return to the political arena, however, are not the only challenges facing The Gambia’s democratic transition ahead of the December 4 election.

In the past five years, The Gambia made significant progress in terms of expanding political representation. Today, 18 registered political parties are competing for the support of just over a million eligible voters in the country. But this crowded electoral market is not a net positive for Gambian democracy. These parties have conflicting agendas and some are not hesitating to fuel divisions and conflicts in order to expand their support base.

Furthermore, the high number of political parties participating in the election, coupled with The Gambia’s first-past-the-post electoral system, means that a candidate with just 100,000 votes can become the country’s next president. This is a major threat to the country’s stability, as it paves the way for losing candidates to declare the elections illegitimate, demand reruns and even trigger civil unrest.

Another issue that hinders The Gambia’s democratic transition ahead of the election is the ongoing disenfranchisement of the Gambian diaspora. While their exact number is not known, between 140,000 to 200,000 Gambians are estimated to be currently living outside the country. The Gambian diaspora played an important role in fuelling the opposition movement that eventually brought Jammeh’s reign to an end. In response, the Barrow administration attempted to give them a say in the country’s electoral politics through a new constitution. But when the national assembly rejected the draft constitution in 2020, the diaspora’s dream of participating in the 2021 election was shattered. Today, in the eyes of many, the upcoming election is going to be less than democratic, as a significant percentage of Gambians will not have a say in who will lead their country for the next five years.

The Gambia has come a long way since the end of Jammeh’s reign of fear and intimidation. Despite the many difficulties the country has faced since the last election, its youthful and dynamic population is looking at the future with hope and positivity. This, however, does not mean its democratic transition is complete. The December 4 election will be the most consequential in the country’s history and determine whether The Gambia will manage to remain on the path to democracy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.