Gabon’s Legislative Elections: an Exercise in Futility

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With the ascension of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the battering of Chancellor Merkel’s party in Hesse, and midterm elections scheduled next week in the U.S., it’s understandable that Gabon’s own legislative elections have received scant attention. But there are real reasons to keep an eye on this country, notwithstanding, the fact that no one is really sure if the country’s president is even alive. I happened to be traveling to Lopé National Park the night before the first round of legislative elections, and this is what I encountered…

A Brief Political Overview
Ali Bongo, President of Gabon

Since 1967, Gabon has been ruled by the Bongo family through the Parti Démocratique Gabonais (PDG), first by Omar Bongo Ondimba, who maintained power until his death in 2009, and then, by his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, the current president. In 1991, a new constitution allowed for multiparty elections, making it nominally a democracy in the Western sense of the word. However, these elections have been marred by allegations of electoral violations. Furthermore, as a presidential system, most of the country’s power is invested in the executive branch where the Bongo family has been impossible to dislodge.

Ali Bongo won reelection in 2016 during a hotly contested vote which saw credible evidence that fraud was used to push the incumbent over the 50 percent threshold. Legislative elections were also supposed to be held that year but were postponed until April 2018, almost certainly because the PDG was aware that its support was eroding. Those elections, in turn, were never held. It was only after the National Assembly was dissolved that a first round of elections was scheduled for October 6, 2018 and a second round for October 27, 2018.

Clear Divide
Libreville, the capital of Gabon

In the country’s capital, Libreville, most Gabonese were apathetic. This is unsurprising as no one I talked to seemed to support the PDG. The last legislative vote in 2011 saw a nationwide boycott that allowed the government to legitimately sweep the election. A number of opposition politicians, including Ali Bongo’s chief rival, Jean Ping, had called for a similar boycott in 2018, unleashing a heated debate over whether abstaining was the right course of action. Ultimately, though, enough candidates unaffiliated with the PDG had registered to severely undermine the strategy. Despite this, the majority of urban Gabonese still seemed reluctant to cast a vote. “The government steals everything,” said one man who would not be going to the polls. “They have already come to an agreement with the opposition on who will win.”

The mood was different at the train station where the Trans-Gabon railway links the capital with the third largest city, Franceville, near the birthplace of Omar Bongo. The station was packed with people returning home to vote, many hardcore PDG supporters. Special tickets had been allocated, specifically, for this purpose. Needleless to say, the train was oversold with seatless passengers clamoring for any open space they could find along the aisles and near the bathrooms.

Antidotal Evidence of Voter Fraud
The train station at Lopé

When my train finally pulled into Lopé, the sun was already up, and a crowd had gathered in front of the town’s market. A spirited political discussion was underway among the locals. Gabonese love to debate, and its common to see perfect strangers arguing over anything from religion to football. Even for those who would not partake in the political process, the election was ample excuse to rage against the government.

But something else was going on in Lopé. The police had mobilized. Apparently, they were going to “get the vote out” by offering free transportation for the outlying villages to the voting station. My driver indicated that this was a typical move by the government to guarantee the election of the PDG candidate.

None of this is particularly earth-shattering. In a country where the police operate bribery checkpoints with impunity, government coercion is part of daily life. There are, of course, many ways to influence an election without directly stuffing ballots.

As was Expect
The town of Lopé after a storm

To no one’s surprise, the PDG claimed to have won the first round of voting by a landslide, taking 74 of the 83 seats up for grabs. Voter turnout was alleged to be over 58 percent, but a closer look at the data shows only a 28.5 percent turnout in Estuaire, Gabon’s most populous province that includes its capital. The second round went less well for the PDG, but they were still able to hold their two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

While my experience is antidotal, it’s hard to imagine that Gabon’s legislative elections were in any way free or fair. To be sure, the PDG does have support, mostly concentrated in the interior and among the bureaucracy and security forces, which constitute a relatively broad swath of Gabonese society. These groups have a vested interest in the regime and keeping the corruption money flowing. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of Gabonese are disenfranchised. Against the monolith of the state, they feel powerless, as well they should. If Lopé is representative of Gabon as a whole, then there is very little that can be changed at the ballot box.

At the moment Ali Bongo is receiving medical care in Saudi Arabia for “severe fatigue,” although, two sources told Reuters that it was a stroke. Without a clear successor in the event of his death, insider squabbling could quickly spell the end of PDG dominance. Mortality, it seems, may finally bring the change that democracy had promised.

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