After rising to power in 1994 in a bloodless coup, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh does not appear to be relenting his tenacious hold on power . When elections were first announced in May of this year, he was said to have been so confident of winning that he insisted that his party would not campaign. And why wouldn't he be? A self-styled mystic who claims to be able to cure AIDS and other seious diseases, Mr. Jammeh maintains his grip on power through both physical suppression of dissension and an aura of spiritual invincibility. The most interesting aspect of the coming November 24 elections is however not Mr. Jammeh or his cancer-curing claims--it is the fact that the roughly 800,0000 Gambians would vote using marbles instead of the standard ballot paper that is used in many other countries.
This is how the system works: After going through the standard process of finding their names in the voting register and getting the nails marked with the 30-day-lasting indelible ink, Gambian voters are then given a glass marble to drop into a metal drum belonging to the candidate of their choice. The drums, painted with the respective party color, are accompanied by the picture of the corresponding candidates.
The clear-glass marbles, roughly 0.5 inch in diameter and numbering about 1.5 million, were donated by Taiwan to aid the democratic process in Gambia. This peculiar voting system has been in place since early 1965 and has survived military coups and other political transitions. The arguments in favor of the drum and marble method are that: it is cheaper since marbles can be reused; it minimizes illegible ballots that arises when paper ballots are used, since illiteracy levels in The Gambia are high. The downside of the system is that voters cannot cast blank ballots, for the marbles must be dropped into a drum. Another disadvantage of the process is that despite the claim that the drums are said to have been designed to not make a lot of noise when a marble is dropped in, supposedly to minimise the impressions that might be created by the tongue-in-cheek observation that "Empty drums make the most noise," the drums of the different candidates produce different sounds when the marbles are dropped in. This situation can lead to voter intimidation as the candidates that one voted for can be inferred from the type of sound the drum makes when marbles are dropped in.
Some things are true of the Gambia: one is that an eponymous river runs through the entire length of that small country, which is enveloped by Senegal on three sides and the fourth side (the west) is exposed to the Atlantic; another is that whether through actual popularity or mystical means, the drums belonging to Mr. Jammeh would require the most efforts from election workers in lifting them to the counting centers. And not even the boycotting of elections by the West African political bloc ECOWAS-- by refusing to send in observers, citing voter intimidation and irregularities, can sour the festive mood that will accompany Mr. Jammeh's no doubt lavish victory party.