Today I am taking you on a little trip, a trip to Gabon, a sovereign state on the west coast of Central Africa. Gabon, formerly a French territory until 1960, has an interesting history, but we are not here for a history lesson today. What brings Gabon onto our radar this week is the election that was held last Saturday … an election for which both presidential candidates are claiming victory!
Since its independence from France in 1960, Gabon has had three presidents. In the early 1990s, Gabon introduced a multi-party system and a new democratic constitution that allowed for a more transparent electoral process and reformed many governmental institutions. Incumbent Ali Bongo Ondimba has held the office of president since the death of his father in 2009, and his challenger in this election was Jean Ping. Both men are claiming victory, just as both are claiming voter fraud! Sound vaguely familiar, or prophetic?
Presidential elections in Gabon are for a 7-year term, and Bongo’s father had ruled for 42 years at the time of his death. Bongo was the first to declare victory after Saturday’s election, but he also claimed that “massive fraud” had been observed in some areas. Ping later declared victory, while stating that “numerous irregularities” had occurred. A statement released by the interior ministry acknowledged irregularities but offered little detail.
Low population density (just under 1.5 million), abundant petroleum, and foreign private investment have helped make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, however because of inequality in income distribution, a significant proportion of the population remains poor. It is said that the half-century of rule by Bongo’s family has led to increased power of incumbency as well as a patronage system lubricated by oil largesse. Though Ping and Bongo have close ties (Ping was, at one time, actually married to Bongo’s sister), Ping believed it was time for a change, time to “Make Gabon Great Again”, if you will. (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist)
The official results will be announced tomorrow by the Cenap (the national election commission), and by law candidates are prohibited from making announcements on the likely outcome. Obviously that law is not well-enforced. Like the U.S., Gabon has a one-round electoral system, but unlike the U.S., there is no equivalent of our electoral system, so the election will go to the candidate with the most votes. Claims of election “irregularities” occurred during the 2009 election, which led to outbreaks of violence, so shopkeepers, fearing a repeat of that violence, were closed on Sunday.
Why did I tell you this story? Because when I first read the headline, ‘Both Sides in Gabon Presidential Election Claim Victory’ in the Guardian, I started to chuckle, knowing full well that the same could happen here in the U.S. on November 8th. Not really a laughing matter, I know, but sometimes my humour is on the dark side.
Then there is Austria. Austria has a system whereby if no candidate wins a clear majority in the first round, a second round is held between the two candidates with the most votes. In April, the election for president was held, and while Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party won the largest number of votes, he only won 35.1%, so a second-round was held in May between Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen of the Greens Party, who had won 21.3% in the first round. Van der Bellen won the second round, albeit by a narrow margin, and only after the postal votes were included. Hofer, who is loosely the Austrian equivalent of our own Trump (albeit more polished and intelligent), claimed there were election “irregularities”, and it was later confirmed that the absentee ballots in some 14 out of 20 districts had, in fact, been improperly counted. The end result is that the second round of the election was annulled and a new second round will take place on October 2nd.
It would be a stretch to say that these two cases represent a trend, but certainly we can all see that the groundwork for claims of election irregularities is already being laid here in the U.S., though the election is still more than two months in the future. This only adds more fuel to the fires of extreme divisiveness that has been the theme of this year’s election process. My best guess is that, while there will likely be little or no validity to the claims of voter fraud, the claims will, nonetheless, continue well past November 8th. What that means for the nation, for the office of President of the United States, for the electoral college system, for the safety of our citizens in the days leading to and following the election is anybody’s guess.