Retractable concession–Gambia

It is always a remarkable thing when an authoritarian president who no one expects to lose accepts defeat (quite jovially and seemingly even humbly) in an election. It is still remarkable, though less enjoyable, to see such a president turn around and retract his concession. That’s what happened in Gambia in the space of a week earlier this month.

An opposition leader’s unfortunate remark about plans to prosecute President Yahya Jammeh might have contributed, but surely Jammeh would fear that regardless of any statements. He may have attempted to stop the vote count on election day and failed, lacking support among military and police. (Guardian, Dec. 7)

Perhaps it just took him a week to rally (buy?) support in the security services to reject the election. The head of the army actually pledged his allegiance to the victor, Adama Barrow (defenceWeb, Dec. 8) only to appear a few days later with an image of Jammeh pinned to his uniform (Dakaractu, Dec. 14)

In the meantime, there had also been a substantial revision of the vote. Jammeh’s margin of defeat to Barrow narrowed from about nine percentage points to only four, although that’s still a fairly clear margin. Notwithstanding the result, Jammeh has declared himself president while armed forces continue to block the Independent Election Commission headquarters.

(Gambians vote with marbles!)

I will add, because this is F&V, that Gambia elects its president by plurality. Barrow’s vote total, according to the election commission, was 43.3%. Jammeh’s was 39.6% and a third candidate, Mama Kandeh, won 17.1%. I don’t know anything about Kandeh, but I wonder if his presence–or the lack of a runoff requirement–robbed Barrow of a more decisive victory. It might not have mattered, and of course we have seen African dictators before who admit falling to second place in the first round of a two-round election, then manage to make it impossible for the opposition to prevail (or even contest) the runoff. (See Zimbabwe, 2008.)


13 thoughts on “Retractable concession–Gambia

    • Must be few now. As I pointed out in this plce about a year ago – despite the standard Politics-101 Chapter 1 throat-clearing about how “there can be no one ‘best’ electoral system because people disagree about the merits of different systems” – two-round plurality has been a clear winner in the Darwinian race for natural selection, as least so far as presidential elections are concerned, having driven out plurality systems on the one hand and electoral colleges (Argentina, Finland, France and in one sense Chile) on the other.


      • Makes some sense. Setting aside AV (which only rich and highly developed nations like Papua New Guinea have successfully implemented) the incentives purportedly provided by FPTP for presidential elections (to coalesce around two easily identifiable candidates and policy positions) are less relevant for newly democratising countries, given that such coalescing normally requires a moderately strong party system and/or reliable long-term measures of public opinion which new democracies generally do not have. Such elections are likely to be heavily fragmented, which means that 2RS at least requires one of whichever two candidates often finish at the top to show broad appeal to the electorate.


  1. Runoffs (as usually implemented) have an advantage over AV that they ensure at least one election where (a) there are only two candidates and (b) the winner will clearly have more votes than the loser, no ifs, no buts. Unlike AV where the first-preference votes – the most visible votes and the ones usually recorded – on the only ballot held may have given the eventual loser a plurality. Also, runoff “masks” (eg) Green or Communist second (or second-last) preferences for a Socialist/ Labour candidate, or far-right second (or second-last) preferences for a conservative candidate, as indistinguishable ticks on the ballot-paper. Even if the Green or the nationalist polled 17% on the first round, no one can say with any certainty that one-third of the 51% who elected the eventual winner were “really” minor-party supporters.
    As a supporter of electoral systems having the maximum transparency compatible with protection of voters from intimidation/ reprisals (ie, secret ballots for popular votes), I regard this “masking” as a bug not a feature – but the fact remains that to a lot of people around the world it is definitely an advantage. Vide how many AV opponents in the UK conceded “FPTP may not be ideal, and French-style runoffs would be an improvement, but AV is completely unacceptable because it costs extra money and it gives minor-party supporters two votes while everyone else gets only one!”
    Even those of us who know something about how electoral systems work have to tolerate some degree of “public understanding and confidence in the system” as a factor, just as judges have come to accept that even when no one is alleging actual bias on the part of a decision-maker, the latter must step aside if the average taxpayer sitting in a pub in Erskineville might misunderstand the situation and detect apparent or apprehended bias. You go to institution-designing with the populace you have, not the populace you would like to have.


    • Of course runoffs have big disadvantages – extra cost, extra time, and (if there are more than two major players on either side of the aisle) the risk of an FPTP result anyway, either on the first ballot (France, 2002) or the second ballot (Germany, 1925), depending on the threshold for eliminating minor candidates. But cost is something negotiable – a rich country might decide to move from five-yearly to four-yearly elections as its GDP goes up and its infrastructure improves, for example – and the extra time might be flipped as an advantage, ie allowing greater deliberation. Certainly some of the rare three-way races under AV in Australia (Queensland has seen a lot) see some voters scratching their heads afterwards and saying “I thought this was just going to be Liberal vs Labor. I’d have paid more attention to my second or third preferences if I’d realized the Independent had a chance”.
      I support AV mainly because I support STV and AV is more consistent with STV as its younger sibling. If STV were off the table I would find runoffs more tempting. But I’m trying to avoid cheerleading for one system as flawless – don’t want to end up like the Approvalistas.


      • I think a three-way race for a presidency would be far more obvious to voters than a three-way race for the Queensland state legislature. I also question the effect of having it not entirely clear how preferences from smaller candidates flow to larger candidates, given that such information can be generally gleaned from exit polling or candidate endorsements.

        The issue of candidates winning off small shares of the vote even under AV (due to exhaustion) would be, I grant, an issue in democratically developing countries with weak party systems, where runoffs make more sense in general (Tom’s point about the value of one election between the top two is more valid here). I don’t actually recall any No2AV supporters arguing for runoffs; perhaps you have records of such a thing.


      • I recollect seeing comments and perhaps even bloggers or proper journalists during the 2011 referendum debate. Probably at The Spectator. I’ll see if I can source some.
        Good point about a single at-large election for a president versus dozens or hundreds of separate district races for a legislature. Someone made that point regarding Canada’s last election – that for a long time the big three were all tied around 30% in the opinion polls, but once the Liberals started to break ahead, a lot of NDP voters switched to voting tactically for the Libs, even (it seems) in districts where the NDP was stronger locally, and that that explained some otherwise anomalous results. Queensland would be in the same ballpark, ie many districts where any one of four different parties (Liberal/ LNP, Labor, National/ Country, and Hansonite) would have a real chance of winning or placing.


      • Henry, I have run a search on the Spectator website (which is where I recollect reading half a dozen or so “runoffs would be all right but AV gives some voters a second vote while others only get one vote” comments back in 2011) but it looks like the comments are not searchable, only the main articles. (A lot of sites these days seem to host comments at some separate site like Disqus, but mirroring makes it looks like they are directly underneath the original story. May be for legal reasons). And while Speccie journalists have posted some eccentric, indeed outright daft, views in their time, none seems to have taken this particular line.


      • Tom

        That’s quite a common misunderstanding. The Alaska league of women voters opposed an AV initiative because they alleged it gave some electors multiple votes.

        The huge problem with runoffs could be called the Chirac/Le Pen problem. The runner-up is not necessarily the consensus choice of opposition electors and there is no obvious way for opposition electors to convrge on a consensus choice. Unless one identified the runner-up by AV which would take us back down the No2AV rabbit hole.

        Sometimes one must just bite the bullet and argue for the perfect.


      • I think it may be best to explain AV by first demonstrating its logic through an exhaustive ballot, then explaining that AV is just an ‘automated’ way of doing it.


      • If a little voice from Canada might comment, in my view there is no good way to elect a president who is also head of government. Only a parliamentary prime minister, accountable to a representative assembly, meets the minimum requirements of democracy.


    • I suppose you could provide that the second candidate in a runoff is:

      1 the candidate who receives more than half the votes that are not cast for the first candidate;

      2 if no-one qualifies under 1, the candidate jointly designated by parties that receive more than half the votes that are not cast for the first candidate;

      3 if no-one qualifies under 1 or 2, the candidate who receives a plurality of the votes that are not cast for the first candidate.

      Although it would be a deal more difficult to explain than AV, it would avoid the Chirac/Le Pen problem.


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