BANJUL, Gambia – Many Gambians hope to secure a transition from decades of dictatorship to democracy on Thursday as they vote in parliamentary elections, the first since longtime leader Yahya Jammeh flew into exile in January. But some worry the coalition that put new President Adama Barrow in place is already seeing cracks.
The National Assembly vote ushers in a new era for the tiny West African country, whose leaders say they want to steer the nation toward reconciliation.
More than 1.8 million Gambians were ruled for 22 years by Jammeh, whose government was accused of human rights abuses. He lost the December election to Barrow, who was backed by a coalition of eight opposition parties. For weeks, Jammeh refused to leave power in a political standoff that brought regional countries to the brink of a military intervention.
Jammeh's eventual flight into exile was a dramatic moment for many in Africa, where a number of leaders have clung to power for decades.
The new government under Barrow has promised to right the wrongs of the past, setting up a truth and reconciliation process. Many Gambians fear that if the new parliament doesn't strike the right balance, their vote in December could be compromised.
The eight opposition parties that backed Barrow as a coalition are now running as separate parties against the representatives of Jammeh's former ruling party and the one opposition party that didn't join the coalition, the Gambia Democratic Congress. They also face some 42 independent candidates.
Some worry that divisions among the parties that united to oust Jammeh are starting to show.
"I don't still understand why party leaders let this happen," said one Gambian, Ebrima Jobe, shaking his head. He said he was disheartened that after all the efforts to form a coalition to end Jammeh's rule, the parties are acting in a way that could threaten the future that Gambians wanted.
Isatou Jarjue, a market vendor, agreed. "I am confused by the lack of unity," she said, adding that only prayers could help the coalition parties emerge victorious in the National Assembly polls.
The country's electoral body has endorsed 239 candidates who are contesting for 53 seats. Five more will be occupied by parliamentary members the president nominates.
Independent Electoral Commission chairman Alieu Momarr Njai said Gambia's newfound freedoms and the lower cost to become a candidate mean that Gambians have a wider choice in Thursday's vote.
If coalition parties do not win a majority, it could affect Barrow's ability to govern and carry out the transition policies he has promised. Gambians also worry that if Barrow's United Democratic Party takes a majority, they could repeat the past by having effective one-party rule.
The former ruling party, which dominated parliament for more than two decades, has indicated that its ability to mobilize the people remains intact.
"The APRC will continue to be the biggest political party in the country," said Kanifing Municipal Council Mayor Yankuba Colley, the party's national mobilizer.
But Colley acknowledged the party's human rights record will haunt it, adding: "We learned from our mistakes."
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Mustapha Jallow in Banjul, Gambia contributed.