Gabon Legislative Voting Starts After Polling Stations Open Late

(Bloomberg) -- Voters in Gabon went to the polls on Saturday to choose parliamentary candidates for the first time in seven years, in an election that has already been delayed by almost two years and which the main opposition leader is boycotting.

Polling stations opened late in some parts of the capital, Libreville, forcing hundreds of people to wait for long periods before casting their votes. At one station, voters struggled to find their names in the electoral roll, while elsewhere they waited for electoral workers to arrive.

“I arrived early,” said Pierre Yves Obiang, 45, a teacher and supporter of President Ali Bongo’s ruling Gabonese Democratic Party. “I want to vote for my candidate. This delay is very annoying.”

Gabon Legislative Voting Starts After Polling Stations Open Late

The vote for National Assembly representatives is expected to tighten the ruling party’s grip on the central African nation, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and which the Bongo family has dominated for half a century. The main opposition leader, Jean Ping, is boycotting the elections following a delay that allowed Bongo to expand his powers through constitutional reforms.

Parliamentary voting was initially scheduled for December 2016, but the electoral commission delayed it twice, saying more time and money was needed to complete reforms.

Delayed Elections

The opposition has alleged that these delays made it easier for Bongo, 59, to win approval in January for constitutional changes that allow him to implement policies without consulting the legislature. Under a new law, Gabon’s defense and security chiefs are required to swear allegiance to the president.

The government this year has expanded the number of parliamentary seats to 143 and cut the Senate to 52 seats from 102. Results from this round are expected before Oct. 10, while a second round of voting is scheduled for October 27. Voters on Saturday are also choosing representatives for local governments.

The elections “have little importance other than to reinforce the current administration,” said Wilson-Andre Ndombet, a political analyst at Omar Bongo University in Libreville.

Opposition leader Ping narrowly lost to Bongo in the country’s closest-ever presidential elections in 2016. His spokesman and several other opposition politicians have urged people to cast their ballots in the first legislative vote since 2011.

Despite their failure to present a united front, Bongo’s opponents are bound to fare better than they did seven years ago, when most opposition parties boycotted the vote, said Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at U.K.-based consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Voter Turnout

Around noon, polling stations in the capital had opened and people were voting. Turnout will probably be low because many Gabonese are fearful of expressing their political preferences and increasingly mistrust elections, a recent survey by Afrobarometer showed.

Last year, Bongo’s government introduced a series of spending cuts to obtain a $642 million loan from the International Monetary Fund after oil income dropped. Half of the workforce in the prime minister’s office was scrapped, while the number of employees in Bongo’s office was reduced to 1,261 from 1,600.

A condition for the IMF loan was that the government move to introduce a number of social reforms needed to improve living conditions in the nation of less than 2 million people where a third live on less than $1.25 a day.

“People live in difficulty, there is misery,” said Suzanne Mendou, 28, a jobseeker. “We have been cheated in the past. I vote because I want change.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.