Category Archives: Gabon

Gabon – Ruling party wins first round legislative elections under revised electoral code

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. 

What next in Gabon, following contested presidential poll?

The August 27 presidential election held Gabon observers riveted to their news and twitter feeds (#Gabon, #GabonVote) as the centralization and publication of vote results dragged into a fourth day.  Results were finally announced by the Minister of Interior in the afternoon of August 31.

According to the election commission’s preliminary results, incumbent President Ali Bongo won reelection with 49.80 percent of the votes, against 48.23 percent for his closest contender, former chair of the African Union (AU) commission, Jean Ping. The eight other candidates remaining in the race received less than 2 percent among them. Voter turn-out among Gabon’s 627,805 registered voters was reportedly 59.46 percent. The electoral code does not provide for a run-off in the event that no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. For a discussion of the election framework and of the institutions responsible for managing the electoral process, see the July 2016 pre-election report by the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

By the evening of August 30 it was clear that the outcome of the election hinged on one of the nine provinces of Gabon – the Haut-Ogooué, the stronghold of incumbent President Ali Bongo and birthplace of his father, Omar Bongo. Results for this second most populous province in the country were only received late at night, according to the chairman of the election commission (CENAP), René Aboghé Ella. Reportedly, 99.93 percent of the electorate in the province (71,714 registered voters) turned out on election day, with 95.46 percent of the votes going to Bongo, giving him an edge of 5,594 votes over Ping. A razor thin margin. In the remaining eight provinces and among the diaspora, according to the provisional results announced by the Ministry of Interior to be validated by the Constitutional Court, voter turnout was between 45 and 71 percent, see table below:

Gabon 2016 presidential election results

Province Ali Bongo Jean Ping Voter turn-out
Estuaire 37.33% 60.88 % 47.35 %
Haut-Ogooué 95,46% 4,31% 99,93%
Moyen-Ogooué 30,51% 66,68 % 57,24%
Ngounié 41,76% 53,76% 62,66%
Nyanga 44,07% 52,08% 59,24%
Ogooué-Ivindo 65,96% 32,50% 65,61%
Ogooué-Lolo 53,25% 44,65% 70,52%
Ogooué-Maritime 29,67% 68,26% 45,41%
Woleu-Ntem 24,80% 72,90% 67,55%
Diaspora 37,38% 58,35% 71,05%
Total 49.80% 48.23% 59.46%

While Ping won six of the nine provinces plus the diaspora vote, the exceptionally high voter turn-out in favor of Bongo in the province of Haut-Ogooué was enough to turn the tables.

Upon the announcement of President Bongo’s reelection, riots broke out in Libreville and other cities in the interior. Angry protesters set fire to the national assembly building; government and private pro-opposition media offices were also vandalized. More than 1,000 people were arrested in Libreville and the provinces, and three killed, according to official sources. The opposition claims many more died. Ping called for a national strike, but economic activity resumed slowly the week following the announcement of the results.

The violence was not a surprise, in a context of deep political polarization between supporters of President Bongo and his opponents, many of whom are former prominent members of the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG). For an earlier blog post on Ali Bongo’s efforts at breaking with his father’s patronage practices and casting himself as a modern, transparent and accountable president, see here. Inviting the EU to observe the election appears to have been in line with these efforts.

The deadline for contesting the results is today, 8 September.  While the Bongo camp has already indicated its intention to complain to the Constitutional Court about certain polling stations, the Ping side demands a recount for the Haut-Ogooué province specifically, preferably in the presence of international experts. The EU observer delegation to Gabon has flagged “anomalies” in the number of non-voters and blank and invalid ballots that does not appear to correspond with the reported participation rate in Haut-Ogooué. President Bongo has charged the EU observers with “bias,” for not flagging polling stations where Ping allegedly scored 100 percent of the vote. According to Bongo, a recount would be done at the “level of the Constitutional Court,” which Ping says he does not trust.  The EU, France and the US have called for the publication of results polling station by polling station, to ease cross checking or results with the copies of results sheets given to candidate representatives at each polling station.

The AU has offered to send a delegation to facilitate talks between the two sides, under the leadership of President Idriss Deby of Chad who currently holds the AU-chairmanship – an offer welcomed by both Bongo and Ping.

Whoever is ultimately declared the winner when the Constitutional Court validates the final results, it is clear that Gabon is in dire need of electoral and political reforms. The EU observer delegation’s preliminary statement stated that management of the election “lacked transparency.” Public trust in the election commission leading into the election was already the lowest among 36 countries surveyed by Afrobarometer in 2014/2015: 51 percent of Gabonese surveyed said they do “not at all” trust the CENAP; an additional 24 percent trust it “just a little.” Only 8 percent trust it “a lot,” and 17 percent “somewhat.” Moreover, 71 percent said that their votes are “never” or only “sometimes” counted fairly. At the same time, Afrobarometer found the Gabonese to be among the strongest supporters of multiparty democracy in Africa; and 92 percent of the respondents said they favor limiting presidential terms to two (currently, Gabon does not have presidential term limits). These sentiments echo findings by the NDI pre-election assessment mission indicating widespread consensus among Gabonese about the need for “institutional reforms that are at the heart of recurring tensions around elections in the country” (p.19).


Gabon – President Bongo on the road to 2016, between continuity and change

Gabon does not often make the headlines. Yet the country has changed in many ways since President Ali Bongo Ondimba took power after his father Omar Bongo Ondimba passed away in 2009, having served nearly 42 years in office. At the time of his death, Omar Bongo was the longest-serving ruler in the world, outside of royalty. A few months after his father’s passing, Ali Bongo was elected in a contested presidential poll which he won with 42% of the votes (Gabon does not have a presidential run-off), well under his father’s score of 79% in 2005. Ali Bongo (ABO) faced off against several contenders from within the ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) who resigned from the party and ran as independents after the PDG designated ABO as the party candidate.  His below 50% score in the poll, despite irregularities and allegations of vote rigging, was symptomatic of the challenges ABO faced and continues to face in imposing himself as the heir to his father’s rule.

Since taking power, Ali Bongo has sought to distance himself from the patronage system of his father and to recast himself as a business-oriented, globalized, modern president. The presidency’s webpage has up-to-date information, including a candid discussion of the Mo Ibrahim Index’s most recent assessment of Gabon; the website also features links to ABO’s facebook page and to a form for sending messages to the president. In January 2014, Ali Bongo initiated an anti-corruption campaign – operation ‘main propres’ (clean hands) – which includes an audit of state expenditures during his father’s rule. The first head to roll was that of the Secretary General of the Ministry of Mines, Industry and Tourism, Jeannot Kalima. Kalima, a long-time PDG-member, was arrested in August, accused of misappropriating funds earmarked for public infrastructure projects during his time as chief of cabinet for the Minister of Public Works, in the 2000s. In recognition of his reform efforts and support for US foreign policy in the UN, Ali Bongo was invited to a private meeting with President Obama, in 2011.

By some accounts, however, rather than a change in governance practice there has been a renewal of the political elite, with a younger crowd now seated at the table, feasting on public funds. In fact, Gabon’s score on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) declined by one point, from 35 to 34, between 2012 and 2013. This was still an improvement over the 29 point score in 2009, the year Omar Bongo died [the CPI scores countries on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean)].

Opposition leaders complain the anti-corruption drive is politically motivated, and aimed at eliminating potential competitors for the 2016 presidential poll.  Lending some credibility to the claim that the government does not exactly embrace an active opposition, Freedom House scores indicate that Gabon has regressed from a Partly Free to a Not Free status under ABO, due to government crack-down on private media and opposition demonstrations. One of ABO’s leading opponents is Jean Ping, former chair of the African Union, who earlier this year declared his allegiance to the opposition – where the other leading figures, like Ping himself, are largely ex-PDG stalwarts and regime insiders who have parted ways with the Bongo family since Ali’s rise to the presidency.

Two years out, the 2016 presidential campaign in Gabon is already heating up (presidential mandates are 7 years, with no term limits). Ping has created an alliance with a number of other leaders, the United Opposition Front for Alternation (FOPA). Should FOPA succeed in uniting the opposition behind a single candidate for the next presidential poll, it could pose a formidable challenge for ABO. Ali Bongo’s ambitious investment programs and push for a diversification of the economy away from oil are yet to bear sufficient fruits for the average Gabonese to see a change in his or her living conditions, despite an expected economic growth of 7.8% this year. Should the voters go for “alternation” (and the electoral commission act truly independently), ABO could see his prediction that “I won’t be there as long as my father” come true earlier than he expected.