Gabon held legislative and local elections on October 6, two years after the contested presidential poll of August 2016 that resulted in widespread violence. Results from the first round of the legislative elections were announced on October 13; results for the local polls, held in one round, are yet to be published. The ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has already managed to secure an absolute majority in the legislature, it appears.
Opposition leader Jean Ping, who still claims he won the presidency two years ago, called for a boycott of the elections, while other opposition parties decided to participate. Recent changes to the electoral code could have justified greater optimism with regards to the opposition’s chances, compared to the 2011 elections where the opposition only won two seats.
In accordance with the new electoral system adopted following a political dialogue process in 2017, legislative polls are now held in two rounds in single-member districts, in contrast to the previously applied multi-member majoritarian vote in one round. The number of seats has been increased from 120 to 143, but their distribution is highly skewed, as demonstrated by a close analysis of the distribution of the country’s 1.8 million population across the 143 constituencies.
In the interior of the country, in provinces known to support the PDG, a deputy in the National Assembly represents a few thousand citizens or less, while in the capital Libreville and the economic center of Port-Gentil, one elected representative represents more than 58,000 and 34,000 citizens, respectively. The distribution of seats thus favors sparsely populated rural areas that have tended to support the ruling party, while the major urban areas where opposition to President Ali Bongo is concentrated are underrepresented.
A summary analysis of the results published by the Gabonese Center for Elections (CGE) indicates that the PDG won 74 seats in the first round, while opposition parties followed far behind with only four seats, and independents won two. The three former opposition parties that decided to join Ali Bongo’s unity government following the 2017 political dialogue – the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the New Democracy (DN) and the Party for Development and Solidarity (PDS) – were particularly hard hit, winning only 1 seat among them. That seat went to the PSD in the province of Ogooué-Ivindo which is otherwise a PDG stronghold. The runoff for all remaining seats is scheduled for October 27.
The gamble by opposition leaders who disassociated themselves from Ping and decided to participate in the elections may not have paid off directly. Former president of the National Assembly Guy Nzouba-Ndama, leader of the recently formed Democrats (Les Democrates – LD) party was eliminated in the first round by a PDG candidate; his party managed to win three seats in the first round of polling. Alexandre Barro Chambrier, leader of the Rassemblement Heritage et Modernite (RHM), heads to the second round, also running against a PDG candidate. His party won one seat in the first round, in the Moyen-Ogooué province. In a particularly surprising development according to CGE results, the Ogooué-Maritime province where Port-Gentil is located has swung from voting for the opposition in the 2016 presidential election to giving the PDG eight out of 13 seats in the first round.
Remains to be seen if opposition parties can coalesce and effectively mobilize voters behind the remaining opposition candidates in the runoff races – assuming the competition is fair. Some opposition candidates alleged voting irregularities in the first round, and there have been fraud accusations – including between the PDG and one of its allied parties, the Center of Liberal Reformers (CLR).
There are close to 30 races where an opposition candidate is on the second round ballot – from the LD, RHM and other parties – which creates an opening for a more representative legislature. It is striking to note, however, that in some opposition strongholds turnout was reportedly significantly lower than in provinces in the interior of the country, notably those that have traditionally been PDG strongholds. Thus while the average turnout in the first round was 58.6% nationally, in the Estuaire province where Libreville is located, only 28.5% of voters turned out to vote. Get-out-the-vote efforts should be a priority for candidates proceeding to the second round. In a country like Gabon with a small electorate, it is particularly true that every vote counts.