(Reuters)Polls opened in Gambia on Saturday with voters using a unique voting system, marbles dropped in each candidate's ballot drum, in a tightly fought presidential election that will test stability and democratic progress.
Gambians vote with marbles in key test for stability
It is Gambia's first democratic election since former President Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office in 2016.
Jammeh, who was defeated by an opposition coalition that backed current President Adama Barrow, fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after refusing to accept defeat.
Barrow, a 56-year-old former security guard and property developer, will face five challengers including his former political mentor, Ousainou Darboe, 73.
Nearly 1 million people out of a 2.5 million population are registered to vote in mainland Africa's smallest country. Turnout is expected to be high, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
At one polling station in the capital Banjul, election officials carried the voting drums outside to show the long lines of voters they were empty before voting started.
Siddy Khan was first to vote in his booth. He walked out leaning on his cane, blue ink on his right index finger to show he had voted. "I feel good. I hope the vote will go well," the 71-year-old said.
Gambians are comfortable with the process of using glass marbles to vote, said Mamadou A. Barry, a returning officer at the IEC. The system was introduced in the 1960s to avoid spoiled ballots in a nation with a high illiteracy rate.
"Each voter gets a marble," he said. "I think it is transparent and fair."
Results are expected by Sunday under the simple majority system.
The other candidates include Essa Mbye Faal, who served as chief counsel of Gambia's Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission that chronicled the abuses of Jammeh's rule, and Mama Kandeh, who came third in 2016 and is backed by Jammeh.
On Thursday night as the campaign came to a close, hundreds of jubilant Barrow supporters gathered in downtown Banjul for a final rally, hoping another Barrow term would secure stability as Gambia seeks to put 22 years of Jammeh rule behind it.
Barrow, who has made lavish promises during the campaign, told the crowd he planned to introduce health insurance that would grant access to treatment without upfront payments.
Critics, however, say Barrow has broken his promises, pointing to how he backtracked on a pledge to serve only three years after winning in 2016. Barrow has argued the constitution requires him to serve out a full five-year term.
Barrow's main challenger, Darboe, told supporters on Thursday that he intended to work towards reconciling Gambians and giving justice to those who suffered under Jammeh's rule.