Gambians voted on Thursday in the first parliamentary elections since long-time leader Yahya Jammeh left power, electing lawmakers who could make or break a raft of reforms promised by the new president.
More than 880,000 Gambians were eligible to vote in the small West African country home to 1.8 million, with many relishing the chance to express their opinion after 22 years under Jammeh.
Voter turnout was low, however, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from the capital Banjul, said the poor showing may be because this election is one many Gambians are unfamiliar with.
“Over the last few decades under Yahya Jammeh, the parliament was effectively a one-party rule where Jammeh’s APRC party was always voted into power, so a lot of Gambians weren’t sure who and why they were voting,” Haque said shortly after polls closed at 16GMT.
Baboucarr Kebbeh, who was part of the EU observation team in Kanifing municipality, said there wasn’t many voters at his polling location.
“I was surprised that the voter turnout was actually very low,” Kebbeh, 31, told Al Jazeera by phone. “I was expecting a high turnout because of the understanding of the need for a National Assembly.”
Kebbeh added he thought the weak turnout could be caused by a lack of voter education, especially in a country where he said Gambians always knew the result before the election took place.
The landscape of Gambian politics has shifted dramatically since the last legislative elections in 2012, when Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) took 43 seats, with a large number of them uncontested because of an opposition boycott.
Only 29 of the 239 registered candidates running for parliament seats representing 53 constituencies were from APRC this year.
President Adama Barrow will appoint five additional seats to bring the total number of parliamentary members to 58.
Thursday’s election is a key test for the seven former opposition parties that make up Barrow’s current cabinet.
Those parties had united to form a coalition to oust Jammeh from power, but internal tensions meant they did not run together in the legislative elections, and Barrow’s promised overhaul of every aspect of the Gambian state will depend on their willingness to cooperate in parliament and in the cabinet.
Halifa Sallah, who has served as the coalition spokesman and special adviser to Barrow, said The Gambia has come a long way.
“We need a National Assembly that can accompany transformation, a National Assembly capable of carrying legal and constitutional reforms,” Sallah said.
“What I am seeing is openness of the democratic process. I do not believe parties will control the process anymore.”
Sallah himself was running as a candidate in Serrekunda Central for the People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism.
Some Gambians had expressed anger that the coalition parties had not been able to present a united front, but President Barrow after casting his vote defended the coalition saying, “There is not [a cabinet] split, this is about democracy and this is the new Gambia.”
‘Smooth start to democracy’
Al Jazeera’s Haque said despite the low turnout and concerns, Thursday’s election is still an important day for the country.
“That fact that they have been able to organise free and fair elections since Yahya Jammeh left is still a success,” Haque said.
Kebbeh, too, believes the election is a positive step for democracy.
“These kinds of elections have never happened. It shows the National Assembly will be truly balanced,” he said. “It shows a smooth start to democracy.”
Final election results are expected on Friday.