AD119: Will of the people? Election results and public opinion in Gabon

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Graph: vote counting in Gabon by province
Dispatches
2016
119
Peter Penar

According to Gabon’s national electoral commission and a subsequent Constitutional Court ruling, incumbent President Ali Bongo won re-election in August against challenger Jean Ping. His razor-thin and disputed victory margin relies in part on extraordinarily strong support and high voter turnout in the president’s home province, Haut-Ogooué. The officially announced results prompted protests in which several people died and many were arrested. They continue to be widely questioned by the opposition and international observers amid fears that failing to address election-quality concerns that have festered since the previous presidential election in 2009 could lead to further instability.

As partisans on both sides debate how likely or believable they find the official election results, one source of comparative data is Afrobarometer’s nationally representative survey in Gabon. This survey was conducted in September-October 2015 – almost a year before the election – and views can certainly change over time. Still, survey findings offer insights into the perceptions of Gabonese citizens – including those in Haut-Ogooué – and highlight the critical importance of addressing public doubts about the trustworthiness of their electoral bodies and processes. As the African Union and the international community assess Gabon’s compliance as a signatory to the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the Afrobarometer results can contribute to an understanding of the evolving situation.

At the time of the survey, public trust in President Bongo and public approval of his job performance were high in Haut-Ogooué but low across the rest of the country. Voter turnout in previous national elections was far lower than turnout reported for the 2016 contest. More broadly, Gabonese citizens – including those in Haut-Ogooué – voiced strong distrust of the Commission Electorale Nationale Autonome et Permanente (CENAP), doubts about the expected fairness of the vote count, low levels of trust in the courts and security forces, and dissatisfaction with the way democracy works in Gabon.

In addition to immediate fears of potential unrest, the crisis in Gabon reflects deep public concerns about the fairness of election processes, the trustworthiness of state institutions, and the ability of Gabon’s democracy to respect the will of the people.