Gambians vote for president using marbles in key test for stability

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Gambians cast their votes for president on Saturday using a unique voting system – marbles dropped into each candidate’s ballot drum – to decide a tightly fought election that is seen as a test of stability and democratic progress.

It is Gambia’s first democratic election since former President Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office in 2016.

Jammeh, who was defeated by an opposition coalition that backed current President Adama Barrow, fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after refusing to accept defeat.

Barrow, a 56-year-old former security guard and property developer, cast his vote in a crowded polling station in the capital, Banjul, accompanied by his two wives.

“I’m happy to see a large turnout from Gambian voters,” he said after voting, adding that he was confident of victory.

Barrow is facing five rivals including his former political mentor, Ousainou Darboe, 73, seen as his main challenger.

Darboe called for calm after the vote, urging his supporters in the tourism-dependent nation not to respond to any provocation.

“Remember, we are in the tourism season, the slightest disturbance in this country will drive away all the tourists,” he said.

Nearly 1 million people from a population of 2.5 million are registered to vote in Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country. Turnout is expected to be high, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has said.

“I want to see a better Gambia, a far better Gambia than the previous years,” said civil servant Bubacarr Kanteh, 39, outside the polling station.

Before the polls opened, officials carried the voting drums outside to show the queues of voters that they were empty.

Gambians are comfortable with using glass marbles to vote, said Mamadou A. Barry, an official at the IEC.

The system, which was introduced in the 1960s to avoid spoilt ballots in a nation with a high illiteracy rate, is “transparent and fair”, Barry said.

Results are expected by Sunday under the simple majority system.

Other candidates include Essa Mbye Faal, who served as chief counsel of Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission that chronicled the abuses of Jammeh’s rule, and Mama Kandeh, who came third in 2016 and is backed by Jammeh.

As campaigning wrapped up on Thursday, hundreds of jubilant Barrow supporters gathered in downtown Banjul for a final rally, hoping another Barrow term would secure stability as Gambia seeks to put 22 years of Jammeh rule behind it.

Critics, however, say Barrow has broken his promises, pointing to how he backtracked on a pledge to serve only three years after winning in 2016. Barrow has argued the constitution requires him to serve out a full five-year term.