Globally, voter turnout has always been a key aspect of any election, shimmering the level of citizens’ interest, awareness, and participation in the democratic process. In fact, during the 15 April local government election the perceived low voter turnout was one of the major talking points by the media, observer groups, and citizens.
We could not see the long queues we saw during the presidential election in 2021. I spent the whole morning and early afternoon at GRTS discussing the significance of local governance and encouraging people to turn out to vote. Here, I reflect on whether indeed there was low voter turnout or whether we have seen an increase from the 2018 elections. Comparing the 2018 and 2023 local government elections in The Gambia shows an improvement in voter turnout.
In the 2018 local government elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) reported a total of 886,578 registered voters in the 2016-2018 electoral cycle, with 54 percent being female and 46 percent being male. However, the actual voter turnout was only 34 percent. In contrast, the presidential election in 2016 saw a voter turnout of about 59 percent.
The 2023 local government elections saw a registered voter population of 962,157, encompassing those registered to vote in the 2021-2023 electoral cycle. In terms of gender, women made up 57 percent of the registered voters compared to 43 percent men. Also, 58 percent of the total registered voters were youth between the ages of 18-35. The voter turnout in this election increased to 41 percent, representing a 7 percent increase from the 2018 elections. This slight increase in turnout raises questions about the reasons behind the low voter turnout in the previous elections and whether it indicates a growing interest in local politics among citizens.
One possible explanation for the low turnout in local government elections in Gambia is the lack of interest in local politics compared to national politics or simply the ranking of elections by citizens. National elections are often viewed as more important and impactful, leading to higher voter turnout. For instance, the 2021 presidential election registered about 90 percent turnout, the 2022 legislative election 51 percent. Another possible reason could be the perceived lack of influence or power of local government officials, resulting in apathy among citizens towards local elections.
Against this background, the 7 percent increase in voter turnout in the 2023 local government elections sparks hope/shows a positive development and could be interpreted as a positive indication of citizens’ growing interest in local politics. It could also be attributed to increased voter education and awareness campaigns by the NCCE, IEC and civil society organisations, resulting in a better understanding of the importance of local elections in shaping the development of local communities. For the first time, we also saw communities and grassroot movements organising debate and engagement with candidates. In Farafenni, the community organised a debate for their candidates supported by the Commission on Political Debate. Similarly, a dialogue was organised between the candidates in the Kunkujang Keitaya Ward supported by Eye Africa TV. Two programs I enjoyed listening to was the Sunu Reew Program on Qradio and Pa Nderry Touray on Star FM. Pa is different and his approach is seen as both direct but equally necessary. Through his program I was able to know the candidates for my ward in New Jeshwang/Ibo Town Ward and was able to assess their programs and make my pick. The exciting part of the program was the call-in segment where candidates were put on the spot by voters in their ward.
While improved voter education might be one factor, I think the main factor is the ability of political parties to mobilise and encourage their supporters to cast their ballots on voting day. Increasingly, we have seen political parties adopting various strategies to mobilise their supporters including the use of WhatsApp. Given low level interest, parties with better local structures online and offline are more likely to dominate the elections and help show party support at the ward level. It is becoming a common practice for party mobilisers to encourage their supporters to turnout to vote using WhatsApp particularly the voice note service. Like previous elections, social media became an effective tool to mobilise considering that political parties have numerous WhatsApp groups official or otherwise where group members were encouraged to turnout to vote. The door-to-door campaign is also another strategy that has been employed by candidates. Beyond voter mobilisation, political parties are increasingly seeing the importance of local politics not only as entry points but ensuring that they stay relevant in national politics.
In conclusion, the voter turnout in the 2018 and 2023 local government elections in The Gambia indicates that there is still room for improvement in terms of citizens’ participation in the democratic process. However, the slight increase in turnout in the 2023 elections suggests that efforts towards increasing voter education and awareness campaigns could lead to a more engaged and participatory citizenry. Beyond the elections, local governments must work on increasing contact with the citizenry and help explain their role. They must be seen to be fair and transparent in the delivery of projects no matter the amount or size of the project. Citizens want to participate so they must be shown the way to engage and the only ones that can do that effectively are the elected representatives. Organising monthly community meetings on fixed dates and rotation among the various sections of the wards could be a good start. Central government must also be serious about decentralisation. To us citizens, it does not matter what political party is in power, but what matters is service delivery for the public. So, strengthening the decentralisation process is one critical way of ensuring that development reaches the citizens. It is crucial to continue working towards creating an environment that encourages citizens to exercise their right to vote and participate in local governance.
Sait Matty Jaw is the co-founder and executive director of Center for Research and Policy Development (CRPD) based in Bijilo, The Gambia and an associate fellow at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).