Following an invitation from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the WFD Thematic Election Expert Observation Mission (TEEOM) commenced work on 31 October 2021 and will continue to follow the process until 20 December 2021. The mission’s primary focus was on the rights and opportunities of women, youth, persons with disabilities and other underrepresented groups to participate in the electoral process. It also assessed media and online coverage of the election campaign. The TEEOM did not deploy observers and so is not in a position to assess the overall integrity of the pre-election, election day or counting processes and this statement is issued prior to final completion of the process.
Executive summary of the preliminary statement
- This was the first presidential election since the 2016 vote brought an end to the 22-year rule of former President Yahya Jammeh. It was widely seen as a test for Gambian democracy. Election day passed without major incident and voters turned out in high numbers. The election was contested by six candidates, representing major parties and one independent. Notwithstanding a range of barriers to the full participation of marginalised groups, the campaign was competitive and fundamental freedoms were generally respected.
- Whilst a small number of interventions bordering on hate speech by high-profile figures garnered significant attention during the campaign, these were widely condemned by Gambian society. No significant incidents of campaign violence were reported. However, the initial rejection of some of the results by three candidates on 5 December, without apparent substantiation, was followed by a swift deterioration in the online discourse.
- Disputes regarding the nomination process, which reached the High Court, proved contentious. Overall, the nomination process diminished the reputation of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and highlighted the lack of coherent legal deadlines and consequently a lack of an effective legal remedy.
- Following the 2016 election, a number of new laws, including a draft Constitution, were discussed but the legal framework remains largely unchanged and some undue restrictions on freedom of the media and freedom of expression are of concern. Despite this the media were able to cover the campaign freely and present a critical analysis of the issues. It is noted, however, that access to the media is limited in large sections of the country, which may particularly impact on women.
- TEEOM media monitoring found that the state broadcaster, Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), covered the campaign in a balanced manner, mostly respecting the legal requirements of equal coverage and providing equal free political broadcasting time to all ￼￼candidates. The private media’s coverage of the campaign was far less balanced, in some cases giving an exclusive focus to the incumbent’s campaign, and often not distinguishing clearly between paid and editorial coverage. IEC Media Rules interpret some aspects of the law in an overly restrictive manner, while internal IEC capacity to monitor the media for potential breaches is weak.
- The lively and uncensored character of the online campaign bore testament to the opening of the democratic space since 2016. These gains would have been amplified had social networks, lawmakers and the IEC undertaken more effective preparation for the campaign. TEEOM social media monitoring found that inadequate preparation impeded the IEC’s capacity to communicate online, which contributed to a partial erosion in the trust it enjoyed with the Gambian people.
- The Gambia has ratified key international instruments regarding women’s participation in political and public life and there are no legal provisions that prevent the full participation of women in elections and politics. However, despite women representing a majority of the electorate, a lack of political will to promote the role of women and the prevailing patriarchal character of society limits the presence of women in decision-making spaces. One woman had indicated her intention to contest the 2021 election, but she failed to complete the nomination process.
- Youth were particularly active in the election, with youth coordinators often giving speeches at campaign rallies and youth activists often responsible for the organization of campaign events and mobilisation efforts during house-to-house campaigns. Youth civil society organisations were also very active in voter education and domestic observation initiatives. Young people, disproportionately young men, were to a great extent the organisers, audience, and subjects of the online campaign.