NA Election: No need for Coalition?

By Nfally Fadera

News of UDP and NRP not being interested in taking part in the National Assembly election under the Coalition Independent ticket has sent Gambians into frenzy and left us divided in opinion as to what is the best way forward. Everyone seems to believe that the strength of the ruling coalition government in the upcoming polls lies in the same united front that got it elected. People are worried that the “deep-seated well-structured” APRC still has the political clout to upset the coalition. Others are looking above shoulders for the rising Mamma Kandeh and Gambia Democratic Congress. The fear is that a national assembly dominated by non-coalition parliamentarians might delay and/or derail the democratic reforms it sets out to achieve. Taking into consideration the polar role parliament plays in governance, that is indeed a legitimate concern. By all indications, a united front guarantees victory and smooth administration for the coalition government. The bone of contention, however, is how do we go about it?

My argument in this commentary is that the coalition is better off allowing its members to contest the NA election separately. This position is based on a few fundamental reasons, which I will come back to later. In the mean time, let us cut through the cacophony generated by this subject, and understand the nature of the ongoing disagreement.

The country’s first democratic test under the new dispensation has us divided. You have one group on the right condemning the leadership of both UDP an NRP parties for “betraying” and frustrating national efforts to completely wipe out Jammeh and his legacy in our state machineries. Of the two though, lawyer Ousainou Darboe has so far received the elephant share of the attacks. Understandably so for a man who leads one of the biggest parties in the country? One commentator boldly charged that the opposition was only able to coalesce in the run to the Presidential election because Darboe was incarcerated at Mile II. In essence, Darboe is seen as the ‘problem’ to opposition unity in the country. Perhaps, the fear is understandable, given that without the backing of his party, sustaining any political group to victory would be difficult.

And then you have others, who are largely UDP sympathizers; but, like the first group, are also in for an alliance. However, given that they have not yet heard from the UDP leadership, they do not want to speculate or blindly defend the position of the party. Often in terse commentaries on Facebook, they would throw jibes at Halifa treating his comments with suspect. The same people are accusing him of backstabbing the coalition government when he publicly condemned the latest attempts to amend the constitution. As Special Presidential Advisor, why didn’t he privately counsel the president before publicly shaming the same people he’s supposed to work with, they asked.

The blame game and embellishment of sacrifices is at its peak. Depending on which side of the aisle you are, supporters are singing the praises of their leaders while castigating others. Continuing this trend would only serve to demean our political sanity, and, therefore, our vital national interests.
Irrespective of where you are, political parties like individuals are rational actors often driven by strategic interests. Analysing Halifa’s, Darboe’s and Hamat’s actions putting on these realist lenses suggest no further. Aware that their chances are limited going at it alone, Halifa and the PDOIS are selling the idea of maintaining the coalition. Simply put, it serves their interests. PDOIS on its own merits may not be able to pull beyond Halifa’s Serrekunda Central and Seedia Jatta’s Wuli east. At their very best, certainly not beyond urban. As a result, their strategy going forward is to dilute individual party strength in the broader stream of the coalition. The same logic of party interest could be used in explaining what drove Halifa Sallah and the PDOIS to reject cabinet appointments offered by President Barrow. They want to take no responsibility for Barrow’s government, spewing the excuse that they are better suited for the National Assembly.

NRP and UDP, on the other hand, are convinced that mass resignations of party bigwigs in the name of the coalition do not serve their interests. Remember that any candidate that renounces their party membership in favor of the Coalition before the Electoral Commission would be seen as an independent candidate, meaning not representing any political party in parliament. And that leads to the question: what happens to them when the Coalition dissolves in three years?

In addition, both parties believe in the strength of their various parties across the country. With the APRC in tatters, chances are that the second and third biggest parties are certain of winning considerable number of seats. It doesn’t make political sense to have key members of their parties resign when they can go solo and conquer anyway.

Even if they accept to legally resign from their parties in the name of the coalition, the complexities involved in equitably distributing the 53 seats in parliament among the coalition stakeholders presents a problem. Some call for a popularity contest of the parties in each constituency. That idea doesn’t stand up because measuring the popularity of the parties will be quite challenging. Do we resort to primaries in each constituency, which would be quite expensive and time consuming? Or, do we rank them by the outcome of previous elections, which would be quite unpopular: a) the new players in the coalition didn’t contest previous elections b) it will leave many parties unsatisfied.

The best way forward is to let the parties battle out on their own. When the political dust settles, they could revert to the letter and spirit of the coalition and champion the democratic reforms process if they are still committed to the coalition. After all, they are the very party running the government. It is not uncommon to have parties forming alliance after elections to work on a common agenda. They are even lucky that the ground is already laid.

Generally speaking, having a plurality of parties in the National Assembly who are ideologically different would only prove to serve the interests of the electorates. That way bills/motions would be tested and contested thoroughly before being rolled out. Otherwise, we’d have a replica parliament dominated by a single political grouping blindly approving anything thrown at them by the government, just like the current APRC dominated house does. After all, all political parties, except two (GDC and APRC) are represented in either the cabinet or the government as a whole. Politicians ought to be treated like politicians: with caution. We cannot put all hope and prayer in the Coalition for the next years believing that all its actions would serve our interests. Or, think that the electorates and Halifa would be bulwarks to abuses and heavy-handedness, be it constitutional or otherwise. They have different constituencies to serve, and that may not always be the electorates. And don’t tell me they can’t get away with it because they’ve already gotten away with a few things.

In conclusion, politics is always a zero sum game where actors always move to maximize their interests over others’. While you ponder and reflect on this analysis, remember that in politics there are no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests.

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