The Gambia will hold its first election on Thursday since the downfall of longtime leader Yahya Jammeh.
Expectations are high that new lawmakers will overhaul the national assembly once derided as a mere rubberstamp by many in the country.
Gambians have long complained that under Jammeh, who ruled for 22 years, laws were often made by executive decree and buttressed by legislation much later on, if at all.
Campaigning ended on Tuesday for the 238 registered candidates representing nine different political parties who are vying for the 53 seats up for election.
Five seats are to be appointed by President Adama Barrow, totalling 58 spots in the small west African nation’s parliament.
Kemo Bojang, a first-time voter speaking to Al Jazeera by phone, said there is a lot of excitement surrounding this year’s election.
“This is a breakthrough for us, voting for someone who will actually represent us,” Bojang, 20, who resides in the western town of Bakau, said.
He added he has witnessed many within his community actively engaged in the political process, something he said many feared to do while Jammeh was in power.
“I’ve seen people who were not into politics before engaged in political discussion this time around,” Bojang said. “Now there is not fear and the feeling that no one can stop you from speaking your mind.”
The landscape of Gambian poltics have shifted dramatically since the last legislative elections in 2012, when Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) took 43 seats, with a large number of them uncontested because of an opposition boycott.
Bojang said he believed the number of parties participating “goes to show how democratic this year will be”.
Among the parties running this year, the United Democratic Party (UDP) is fielding the most candidates after long being seen as the strongest opposition force in The Gambia.
Alagie Darboe, deputy administrative secretary of the UDP who is standing for a seat in The Gambia’s West Coast Region, said the party was aiming to win in 44 constituencies.
“The support we are getting from the electorate during the campaign is a clear indication that we are going to win,” he told AFP news agency.
Barrow, who won December’s presidential race, was a former UDP treasurer who resigned to run as the candidate of an unprecedented opposition coalition.
After a drawn-out crisis caused by Jammeh’s initial refusal to step down, mediation efforts by west African leaders and the threat of military intervention eventually delivered the country’s first ever democratic transition in January.
Barrow’s cabinet is made up of the heads of seven different political parties, all of which will field candidates in Thursday’s election.
The president had initially said the opposition coalition was a “family” and would run again as a group in the legislative poll, but internal tensions broke apart the agreement.
As a result, parties whose leaders govern together as ministers will be pitted against each other at the ballot box, stoking tensions that some close to the government say could play into the hands of the APRC.
Yankuba Colley, the APRC’s campaign chief, said the party knew mistakes were made during the presidential election, but added his candidates were working hard to show it was still a vital force.
“We are optimistic that we are going to defeat our opponents in the 29 constituencies [where] we fielded candidates,” he said.
But Bojang, like many Gambians he said, hope the APRC will fade away.
“The fact they are only running 22 candidates goes to show their popularity and how they won’t be successful in this election,” Bojang said.
And he hopes that after Thursday’s election, the country will again unite as many Gambians did against Jammeh in December.
“I liked to see The Gambia more united than we are at the moment,” he said.
“If we’re able to continue that unity, I think it will go a long way in keeping our freedom and the democracy.”
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