Gambians went to the polls Thursday to elect new members of parliament. While independent candidates have made some ground, the ruling party is expected to maintain a strong hold on its power. President Yahya Jammeh has been in power since a coup in 1994 and has given little authority to the parliament. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.
A greater number of independent candidates are vying for seats in The Gambia's National Assembly than in recent elections. Analysts say the candidates' participation has increased public interest in voting.
Gambian journalist Tijan Janneh says formal opposition parties were weakened in the 2006 presidential election, in which Yahya Jammeh was easily re-elected. Janneh says this allowed for the emergence of more independent candidates.
"They have been calling on the electorate to put aside the idea that the ruling party is going to sweep the polls," he noted. "They say, 'So let the people come out and vote.' Actually that message has gone down very well with the electorate."
However, Janneh says he expects the ruling party to garner nearly all of the seats.
Abdoulaye Saine is a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio. Saine, originally from The Gambia, says he does not see real democracy at work in the country.
"Even though elections are being held, both the presidential and National Assembly elections, what we have in The Gambia today is a dictatorship," he said. "One that is brutal and one that does not subscribe to the international norms of protecting human rights."
Saine says that even though many Gambians are unhappy with Mr. Jammeh who has vowed to stay in power for three more decades, they are likely to vote for well-entrenched incumbents who hold a lot of power in the regions.
Analyst Bob LaGamma with Washington D.C.-based Council for Community of Democracies says while elections offer opportunity for change and democratic growth, he does not expect The Gambia to benefit from the polls.
"Any election is an opportunity, but the groundwork has to be done to ensure that parties can compete fairly, that the media is open to the opposition, that civil society can play an energetic role and that there can be genuine competition," he said.
LaGamma says he does not think the current government, which in the past has been accused of harassing opposition figures and manipulating elections, is likely to allow a fair vote.
Results are expected to be announced by Friday.