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Chief Observer Norbert Neuser presents the Missions´ Preliminary Statement on Presidential Election

06/12/2021 - 12:09
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Wide voter participation and citizen group engagement mark democratic headway, although fundamental legal reform remains a key concern. On 4 December Gambian citizens showed their strong desire to be part of the democratic process by participating in the presidential election in great numbers. This built on the commitment of civil society throughout the election period to strengthening democratic headway.

EU EOM The Gambia 2021 Press Conference Preliminary Statement

“EU EOM observers noted positively the transparency of the voting and counting process on election day. This was in contrast, however, to the opaque approach of the IEC at central level during the pre-election period,” stated Norbert Neuser, the Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) and Member of the European Parliament.

On election day, EU observers reported from over 128 polling stations in rural and urban areas in all 7 administrative areas. The election day was found to be peaceful. While polling officials carried out the process professionally, some procedural gaps were noted during the voting and counting, which if not addressed could provide the possibility for misuse in future. The tabulation was accessible, and results were announced progressively by constituency, which promoted transparency, although disaggregated polling station results were not published.

Mr. Neuser stated that “The public standing of the IEC, which has been held in high esteem by stakeholders since the 2016 election, unfortunately has been diminished. During the candidate nomination process, the IEC accepted only 6 of 21 candidacies and did not allow for meaningful scrutiny”. The court ruled that the IEC had acted unlawfully on the exclusion of an aspirant.

The campaign environment was competitive and vibrant, and freedoms were largely respected. The EU EOM observed an advantage for the incumbent and, generally, a more uneven playing field for candidates. Weakness of campaign finance regulations led to the monetisation of the campaign.

While the ability to voice opinions openly has improved, the legal framework for the media continues to severely restrict freedom of expression. Disinformation on social media confused voters and defamatory rhetoric shrank the space for a fact-based debate.

The Chief Observer concluded by noting that “structural deficiencies and critical procedural and legal gaps require fundamental reform. The EU EOM will return to The Gambia to publish and present its final report including recommendations to contribute to improving upcoming elections.”

EU EOM The Gambia 2021 Press Conference Preliminary Statement

Summary of the Preliminary Statement:

  • The 4 December 2021 presidential election took place in a competitive and vibrant campaign environment, with all candidates meeting with voters throughout the country to convey their messages. It promoted the democratic tendencies within Gambian society and a growing transitional perspective. This tendency, however, was disconnected from the structural deficiencies and lack of fundamental reform. The monetisation of the campaign and the advantage of incumbency also led to an unlevel playing field between contestants. Polling and counting were well administered during a peaceful election day. The extensive participation of citizen observers, including fact checking initiatives, helped voters navigate the process and contributed to its transparency.
  • The legal framework provides a minimal basis for conducting democratic elections, although there are critical gaps, restrictions, and legal uncertainties that require significant reform. As no comprehensive constitutional or electoral reform has taken place, previous EU EOM recommendations in key areas, including restrictions on the right to vote and stand, challenges to candidate nomination, and campaign finance rules, remain unaddressed.
  • The IEC has been held in high esteem by stakeholders since the 2016 presidential election. This public standing was, however, diminished after court findings that the IEC had acted unlawfully. The duties of the IEC are very broad, but the capacity of the institution is modest. There have also been concerns raised by various interlocutors about a lack of transparency on aspects their work, with minimal information put into the public domain.
  • The IEC announced that just 6 nominations had been accepted; the other 15 aspirants had been rejected. There had been a brief period of public scrutiny during which objections to candidacies could be made by voters. Interested parties, however, were granted access for just five minutes. This exercise was not meaningful, as voters did not have a real opportunity to scrutinise the documentation and gather the information required to make grounded objections.
  • Throughout the campaign, freedoms were largely respected, and campaigning was issue-based, although highly personalised. Social media was employed widely. Throughout the country, campaigns met with voters extensively at large rallies in towns, down to small meetings at the village level. Women took an active part, although they were rarely in leadership positions.
  • Lack of campaign finance regulation added to an unlevel playing field. This was exemplified by widespread distribution of goods and gifts, giving the incumbent an undue advantage.
  • Despite journalists and citizens being able to voice their opinions, the media legal framework severely restricts freedom of expression. In practice, the allocation of TV licences to business conglomerates undermined media freedom and pluralism. The Media Rules on campaign coverage provide for free airtime and the right to purchase airtime, but unduly restrict candidates’ right to free speech. EU EOM media monitoring results show that the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) provided rather balanced news coverage of contestants’ campaign, while commercial TV stations displayed significant bias towards the incumbent.
  • Facebook, with some half a million users was the prime online discussion forum on elections. WhatsApp was instrumental in mobilising the electorate, while also accelerating the spread of false news that distorted the campaign environment. The Gambia’s top 10 news/infotainment pages on Facebook upheld a vigorous and pluralistic debate. However, disinformation confused voters, while tribal rhetoric shrank the space for a fact-based debate. National fact-checking fostered transparency and strengthened electoral integrity.
  • Women have been active, although their role in the presidential race has been limited. One woman aspired to nomination but was rejected. Further affirmative action is needed to address barriers to political participation for marginalised groups.
  • Election day was calm and voter turnout high, with long queues throughout the day. The overall performance of polling staff was assessed as good, although limited difficulties were observed, some of which undermined the secrecy of the vote. Counting procedures were not always followed and results forms were not always publicly posted or provided to candidate agents. The collation was accessible, and results were announced progressively by constituency, which promoted transparency, although disaggregated polling station results were not published.

PDF icon eueom_the_gambia_2021_prelimstatement_final_211206.pdf

 

PDF icon eueom_the_gambia_2021_press_release_prelimstatement_final_211206.pdf

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