Constitutional reforms cement incumbent president Ali Bongo’s tenure ahead of August polls

The Republic of Gabon is set to hold presidential, legislative, and local elections on August 26. The incumbent President, Ali Bongo Ondimba is favoured to win against an opposition that is divided. Although Bongo hasn’t yet declared his intention to run, it is widely expected that he will be on the ballot paper come August 26, 2023.

As it stands, the opposition has failed to field a single candidate to challenge Bongo’s strong Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) that holds majority seats in both houses of parliament. Apparently,15 opposition candidates are expected to run for presidency which will only divide their votes further and disadvantage them.

This election comes against a backdrop of constitutional reforms that have reduced the term limits from seven years to five years, and return to single-round voting in a first-past post-election system. What is visibly missing, is the capping of constitutional term limits.

In 2016, Bongo survived an election embarrassment when he was narrowly re-elected with a margin of 5,500 additional votes to beat his closest rival Jean Ping of the Union of Forces of Change (UFC). Bongo won by 49.8 % against Jean Ping 48.2%, a victory result that was contested by the opposition for allegedly being fraudulent leading to deadly post-election violence in the oil-rich nation.

Among the constitutional reforms, is the provision for a “president’s temporary absence” to create a legal backing to transfer the “interim presidency” powers jointly to three political leaders namely; the speakers of the Senate and the National Assembly, and the defence minister. This amendment came at the backdrop of concerns over President Bongo’s health having suffered a stroke in 2018 that rendered him absent from his political seat for 3 months as he underwent rehabilitation. During that time, there reportedly was a failed attempted coup.

Bongo, 64, took over from his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, in 2009 having ruled the country for 41 years. Political analysts have argued that the Bongo family has turned Gabon into a dynasty with authoritarian tendencies.  To reinforce this argument, the constitutional amendments passed in 2020, unequivocally granted lifetime immunity from prosecution to former presidents for their actions during their time in power. This amendment shields former presidents from any form of accountability and liability for their actions, a move that underscores Bongo’s intent to make arbitrary decisions without fear of being subject to the law.

On the sidelines of the constitutional reforms, there have been calls for electoral reforms by the opposition political parties and civil society ahead of the 2023 elections. Among the proposed reforms was the call to limit the role of military in the electoral process. The presence and influence of the military in Gabon’s elections underscore the growing authoritarianism under the leadership of Bongo.

Gabon is a small country with a relatively small population of 2.3 million. In 2018, there were 1,177,350 registered voters.

Gabon is one of the richest countries in Africa largely due to its oil, timber, and manganese, but the wealth doesn’t trickle down to the nationals due to entrenched corruption, and this remains one of the most critical election issues.

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