Gambians set for high-stakes polls, first since end of Jammeh era

Al Jazeera :
Yahya Jammeh had once pledged he would govern The Gambia for “a billion years”, but his actual 22-year rule came to an end on the evening of January 21, 2017 when he and his close family members boarded a small, unmarked aircraft at the airport in the capital, Banjul.
Jammeh had refused to step down after a December 1, 2016 vote in which opposition leader Adama Barrow was declared the winner, triggering weeks of tension as West African leaders threatened to use military force to remove him if he failed to step down. After days of negotiations with regional heads of state, Jammeh was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea, ending a tenure marked by a litany of alleged abuses and financial plunder.
Five years later, the Gambians are set to return to the polls on Saturday – and for the first time in 27 years, Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 coup, will not be on the ballot. Instead, Barrow, the incumbent president, and five other candidates are vying for the top post, in a closely watched vote that is seen as a test of the country’s democracy.
Political veteran Ousainou Darboe, 73, is considered Barrow’s main rival. A former vice president and lawyer who has represented opponents of Jammeh, Darboe ran for election against the ex-ruler several times.
But even from afar, Jammeh still casts a long shadow over The Gambia, where he retains significant political support. In a string of speeches by telephone, the 56-year-old has urged crowds of rapt listeners not to vote for Barrow but back a coalition run by opposition candidate Mama Kandeh, who came third in 2016 and who Jammeh has described as his “slave”.
His possible return home and how the country should respond to the alleged crimes under his rule – including rape, torture, the use of death squads and state-sanctioned “witch hunts” – have been central themes ahead of the vote.
Polling stations are due to open at 08:00 GMT and close at 17:00 GMT. There will be one round of voting, and initial results could be expected as early as Sunday.
With the election set to be a close race, stakes are high for victims of Jammeh-era crimes, who see the vote as crucial in bringing perpetrators to justice. Activists have expressed disappointment that the commission’s recommendations for prosecutions have not yet been made public.