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What can public opinion surveys tell us about what is going on in Gabon?

11 Sep 2016 Gabon
By Kim Yi Dionne, Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

Supporters of Gabonese opposition leader Jean Ping face security forces (unseen) blocking the demonstration trying to reach the electoral commission in Libreville on August 31. Image coutesy of the 'The Monkey Cage Blog'.

Originally posted on 'The Monkey Cage Blog'

   Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

The following post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. 

The small central African nation of Gabon has been in crisis since holding presidential elections on Aug. 27. The incumbent, Ali Bongo, claims to have won reelection with 49.8 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate Jean Ping — whose official vote share was 48.2 percent — refutes the outcome and his supporters have taken to the streets. Some protesters set the parliament building on fire.

The state has responded with a heavy hand to the post-election protests, detaining hundreds and leaving at least three people dead. (The opposition claims the death toll is as high as 100 people.) Why have Gabonese citizens taken to the streets given the great potential they will be met with violence from the state?

Many believe the election has been stolen. In addition to the very narrow margin of victory (only 1.57 percentage points) and suspiciously high turnout in a Bongo stronghold, people have little trust in Gabon’s electoral commission. In 2015, Afrobarometer conducted a nationally representative public opinion poll asking Gabon’s citizens about their faith in the country’s electoral commission.

Michigan State University political scientist Peter Panar wrote last week in The Conversation:

…Gabon’s electoral commission has continually failed to meet the public’s demands for transparency and confidence in managing free and fair elections. Data from the Afrobarometer survey conducted in September and October of 2015 reveal that a majority (51%) of Gabonese had no trust “at all” in the election commission. Another 24% reported “a little bit” of trust. These are the lowest trust ratings of any election commission among the 36 African countries surveyed by Afrobarometer.

More specifically, Gabonese do not trust the election commission to count votes fairly. Penar writes:

Afrobarometer data reveal that seven in 10 Gabonese citizens (71%) believe votes are “never” or only “sometimes” counted fairly. A mere 15% believe that the vote count is always fair. Citizens who doubt that votes are counted fairly may question the government’s announcement of fewer than 6,000 votes separating the two contenders and 99% turnout in the president’s home area.

Since the election, Gabon’s citizens have had limited connection to the internet. The government has imposed multiple internet shutdowns since the official announcement of Bongo’s reelection, including nightly internet blackouts. The first post-election internet shutdown was the longest in any country “since Libya went dark during the Arab Spring in 2011.”

The government’s decision to block internet access is smart strategy given relatively high internet penetration in Gabon. According to the 2015 Afrobarometer survey, 44 percent of urban Gabonese reported using the internet to access news more than once a week.

Tensions will likely stay high in Gabon until its Constitutional Court rules next week on whether a vote recount is in order. If the court issues a judgment to conduct a recount, President Bongo would face popular resistance to any efforts to subvert that decision.

Citizens’ opinions are clear on the balance of power between the president and the courts; nearly 88 percent of Gabonese surveyed by Afrobarometer in 2015 felt that the president must always obey the laws and the courts, even if he thinks they are wrong. However, Bongo’s actions to date suggest citizens’ opinions are not driving his decisions.