Gabon - Political Parties
At the time of Gabon's independence in 1960, two principal political parties existed: the Bloc Democratique Gabonais (BDG), led by Leon M'Ba, and the Union Democratique et Sociale Gabonaise (UDSG), led by J.H. Aubame. In the first post-independence election, held under a parliamentary system, neither party was able to win a majority. The BDG obtained support from three of the four independent legislative deputies, and M'Ba was named Prime Minister. Soon after this the two parties agreed that Gabon did not have enough people to support a two-party system, and the two party leaders agreed on a single list of candidates, starting with the 1961 presidential election. In that election, held under the new presidential system, M'Ba became President and Aubame became Foreign Minister.
This one-party system appeared to work until February 1963. Then, the larger BDG element forced the UDSG members to choose between a merger of the parties or resignation. The UDSG cabinet ministers resigned, and M'Ba called an election for February 1964 and at the same time reduced the number of National Assembly deputies from 67 to 47. The UDSG failed to muster a list of candidates able to meet the requirements of the electoral decrees. When the BDG appeared likely to win the election by default, the Gabonese military toppled M'Ba in a bloodless coup on February 18, 1964. French troops re-established his government the next day. Elections were held in April 1964 with many opposition participants. BDG-supported candidates won 31 seats and the opposition 16.
Less than a year into his presidency, Omar Bongo made Gabon a one-party state. Within the ruling Parti Democratique Gabonais (PDG), however, Bongo deftly balanced ethnic and regional interests, dispensing money and patronage to local "barons" and consolidating his control. From his earliest days in power and throughout his career, Bongo has been particularly adept at dividing and neutralizing the Fang, Gabon's largest ethnic group (with about 30 percent of the population). Carefully maintaining an alliance with the family of former President Leon Mba, an ethnic Fang, Bongo ensured that generations of Fang politicians got enough power and benefits to keep them placated, but not enough to pose a serious challenge to his regime. Other groups were handled with similar skill. Though he did not hesitate to jail political opponents, Bongo showed an early preference for carrots over sticks in domestic politics, and with an oil boom that began in the 1970s he had many carrots to dispense.
Omar Bongo successfully weathered the most serious challenge to his presidency during the wave of protest, constitutional reform and democratization that swept Africa in the early 1990s. In 1990, convinced that the population was mature for it, Omar Bongo Ondimba added flexibility to his political system. After six days of exchanges, during the National Conference in March-April 1990, he opened up the elections to all the political players, irrespective of their political opinion, with a transition Constitution adopted by the National Assembly and the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Gabon (PDG).
Bongo reintroduced multi-party politics, granted freedom of the press -- and by many accounts stole the 1993 election against former Roman Catholic priest Paul Mba Abessole. Scores died in post-election rioting, but Bongo's control was never seriously in doubt. By 2009, Mba Abessole was a well-paid deputy prime minister and a half-dozen former opposition leaders were in cabinet, their various parties subsumed and almost indistinguishable in the PDG's parliamentary and electoral coalition.
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