Gabon Pre-Election Technical Assessment, October 8 - 25, 1998
In May 1998 the government of Gabon and several opposition political parties approached the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) to request assistance with the December 1998 presidential election. After carefully examining Gabon's political environment, IFES determined that a pre-electoral technical assessment would be appropriate, both to determine the ability of the country to organize and implement a free and fair election and to identify specific needs for the forthcoming balloting. The Gabonese government and the opposition welcomed IFES' announcement of an assessment mission with funding provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS).
A five-member team spent 17 days (October 8-25) in Gabon working in Libreville as well as in the provincial capitals of Port-Gentil, Oyem, and Franceville. In attempting to provide a technical analysis of preparations for the election, IFES met with political parties, presidential candidates, and diplomatic missions in Gabon. The team also spoke with civic leaders, professional associations, religious institutions, and labor unions. The team analyzed all legal documents at its disposal including the Gabonese Constitution, the Electoral Code, and decrees relating to the electoral process.
Before its departure from Gabon, the IFES team delivered a preliminary assessment and a set of recommendations to the Gabonese government, political parties, and international donors. This document is a final version of that report.
The December 1998 presidential election offered the government of Gabon an opportunity to demonstrate a genuine transparency in the administration of its political processes and to strengthen its regional leadership role. President Omar Bongo has emerged as an important political figure in Africa, using his diplomatic skills to advance the resolution of complex, longstanding conflicts, most notably in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A well organized election would reinforce the image of President Bongo as a modem, progressive leader. On the other hand, a disputed election, tainted by poor organization or fraud, could damage Gabon's emerging role as a regional model.
In its 1993 report, written seven months before the first multiparty election in Gabon, IFES noted that the election "would test the commitment of the regime that has governed the country for a quarter of a century." Both independent observers and many among the Gabonese electorate concluded that the test resulted in a failure. The 1993 election was troubled by serious irregularities at every level and ushered in a period of instability and political violence.
The municipal and legislative elections which followed were also characterized by poor organization, disorder, and violence. Both the majority and the opposition were suspected of acts of fraud. As a consequence, the Gabonese electorate lost faith in their emerging democratic institutions. Today voter apathy is high and political parties, government, and civil society all appear to lack effective civic education programs capable of dispelling the malaise.
There is no reason to doubt that Gabon is capable of organizing a free and fair election. Gabon is a small country with relatively well-developed internal communication and transportation systems. The human and financial resources needed to bring about a successful election are available. A framework of democratic institutions--including political parties that function in all regions of the country and national regulatory agencies--already exist in the political arena. The principal focus of the IFES team centered on (a) the willingness of the government to establish an equitable framework for the election and to cease using its considerable resources and power to influence the election process in its favor; and (b) the ability of the institutions involved in the election--particularly the Interior Ministry, the court system, and the National Electoral Commission--to function independently rather than as agents of the majority party.
The IFES team found that without quick and precise action by the government, the scene was set for a repeat of the disorder and chaos of the preceding elections. In the past, allegations of disorder, manipulation, and fraud have led to disillusionment and violence in urban areas. Many of the problems cited in the 1993 IFES report were still present at the end of October 1998, including disputes over the electoral list, the ineffectiveness and unpreparedness of the National Electoral Commission, and the lack of any coherent civic education program. These problems diminished the chances for the presidential election to be viewed, in Gabon and abroad, as a credible expression of the will of the Gabonese people.
The political system of the country affords significant advantages to the majority party. Although in principle electoral institutions are apolitical, the actual make-up of these institutions puts their neutrality in question. Weakness of civil society, and unequal access to state-owned media further decreased the chance that this election will be viewed as a fair contest.
There had been, however, some positive signs. Compromises between the government and the opposition regarding the reopening of the electoral list and the number of political party representatives on the National Electoral Commission were encouraging. Nevertheless, the expulsion from the country of representatives of GERDDES-Togo, an election monitoring group, raised serious doubts as to the government's commitment to permit foreign observers to freely witness and comment upon the process.
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