tough choices

Will Gabon’s presidential election be decided in one round?

By Jeanne le Bihan

Posted on April 3, 2023 09:50

 © Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba at the presidential palace in Libreville on 1 March 2023. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP
Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba at the presidential palace in Libreville on 1 March 2023. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

The text of the law, which will impact this year’s presidential, legislative, and local elections, was adopted by the Council of Ministers and passed by the National Assembly and the Senate as a result of national consultations requested by Ali Bongo Ondimba.

Five years ago, it seemed like a good idea: to move from a single-round presidential election to a two-round ballot. In January 2018, less than two years after Ali Bongo Ondimba was returned to power, the Gabonese parliament adopted a draft constitutional revision along these lines, during a special session meeting.

The spokesman for the presidency at the time, Ike Ngouoni, who has since been imprisoned, sent out a congratulations on what he called a “step forward in democracy.”

Five years later, the proposed reform is in danger of being scrapped before its initial application.

To understand what happened, we have to go back to the national consultations requested by the president in his speech on 31 December, which took place in February.

On that occasion, the question of the cost of this year’s upcoming presidential, legislative, local and senatorial elections, the question of limiting the number of terms of office, and, more generally, the modalities of the forthcoming elections, were debated.

Promotion of dialogue

These consultations took place without some of the opposition figures who had decided to boycott them, such as Paulette Missambo, the president of l’Union nationale (UN), or Alexandre Barro Chambrier, who heads the Rassemblement pour la patrie et la modernité (RPM).

When they ended, Ondimba was careful to explain publicly that the measures that had reached consensus among the delegates present would become draft laws.  Therefore, the one-round ballot returned to the table.

The text does not only concern the presidential elections but also the legislative and local elections of this year, as well as the senatorial elections to be held in 2027. Presented by Prime Minister Alain Claude Bilie-By-Nze, it was adopted by the Council of Ministers on 3 March, voted by the National Assembly on 23 March, and approved on Thursday, 30 March by the Senate.

It must now pass a final vote by both chambers of Congress before ratification.

Citing primarily financial reasons, the government said it wished to avoid the “repeated mobilisation of human resources,” and to control the “costs incurred for each election.”

In presenting the draft constitutional revision to the Law Commission on 17 March, Bilie-By-Nze insisted that Ondimba could have “bypassed a Congressional session,” but that he had preferred “the promotion of dialogue.”

From seven to five years?

The current reform also changes the minimum age for running for president from 18 to 30, as well as the reduction of presidential terms from five to seven years. This will bring a “touch of modernity” to Gabon, said Ondimba, who was elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2016.

In the National Assembly, where the Parti démocratique gabonais (PDG) has a large majority, the text was voted with 116 YEA votes, six NAY votes, and three abstentions. Among the reform’s opponents, the Parti social-démocrate gabonais (PSD) of Pierre-Claver Maganga Moussavou sees in particular in the transition to a five-year term an “aberration,” given the challenges that Gabon must meet in the coming years.

When we make a constitutional reform, it is to stimulate the evolution of democracy.

“When we make a constitutional reform, it is to stimulate the evolution of democracy,” added Moussavou, saying that the single-round ballot is not a “solution to the electoral crisis,” as the bill indicates, but a step backward in democracy. “We would have preferred to limit the presidential term rather than allow it to be renewed without limit and return to a five-year term.”

What will the opposition do?

Will the return to a single round of voting change the situation? About 15 candidates have already declared themselves, including Pierre-Claver Maganga Moussavou. His party, the PSD, is a member of the Alternance 2023 platform, created in January alongside the UN and the RPM. While they have not announced their candidacy for the moment, Paulette Missambo and Alexandre Barro Chambrier could be tempted to enter the race.

“It would be a good thing if we consulted so that there are not too many candidates,” said Moussavou, while indicating that he would not step aside in favour of any particular candidate. In 2016, four opposition figures lined up behind former Prime Minister Jean Ping, Ondimba’s main political adversary at the time.

Will the constitutional revision, if it is definitively adopted, push the opposition to try the union card? In any case, there is little doubt that the incumbent president will be the candidate, even if it has not yet been made official.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.