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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Have tactical alliances and coalition politics now become a permanent feature of Gambian politics?

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By Dr Ebrima Ceesay

The Gambia’s presidential election of December 2016 gave birth to a new form of politics with the introduction of the first post-independence Gambia’s coalition government. The question therefore arises: Are tactical alliances and coalition politics here to stay? Well, forecasting future Gambian election results, especially two years ahead of time, is surely a futile exercise, or an ill-advised venture. But one thing seems highly likely: the tactical alliances and coalition politics we saw during the December 2016 presidential election, most likely, are not going to be a one-off. Henceforth, coalition politics and tactical alliances, in my view, appear to be part of a long-term trend towards a more consensus democracy or non-majoritarian democracy in post-Jammeh Gambia.

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And there are now strong indications that tactical alliances and coalition governments could well become a regular feature of (future) Gambian politics. Therefore, the 2021 general elections look set to see more co-operation between political parties than ever before. Again, tactical alliances, in my view, will become prominent with political parties entering into some sort of alliance or pact which will see, for instance, some of these parties choosing not to put forward candidates in certain seats, especially during local government and national assembly elections.

As it stands now, we have a simple majority system in The Gambia – meaning that the presidential candidate with the most votes in the first round is declared the winner of the election. But with the absolute majority system likely to be introduced for the next election, and UDP likely to split into two parties, while Mamma Kandeh of the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC) could be a dark horse, it would be almost impossible for any single party to win with an outright majority of 51 percent or more, in the first round of the presidential voting. Under the proposed new Gambian constitution, an absolute majority of 51 per cent (or more) would be required for victory.

The Dutch-American political scientist Professor Arend Lijphart, a leading authority on consociationalism, and who has written extensively on the ways in which divided and polarised societies can manage to sustain democracy effectively, has identified two forms of democracy: majoritarian and non-majoritarian democracies. Arend Lijphart, in his three seminal or classic works The Politics of Accommodation, Consociational Democracy, Democracies and Patterns of Democracy, distinguishes between majoritarian and non-majoritarian democracies. Majoritarian democracy is associated with a single-party majority government, while non-majoritarian democracy is characterised by coalition politics and executive power-sharing.

In short, the majoritarian model is characterised by the domination of a one-party government, whereas the non-majoritarian concept is synonymous with consociational and consensus democracies, where democratic decisions are taken, by and large, by consensus. The concepts of consensus democracy and consociational democracy are actually different, but they are closely related, in the sense that the two notions do center on the issue of providing minorities with some voice/say in the political process. According to Lijphart, both consociational and consensus democracies are designed to ensure democratic/political stability and the protection of the minority. The consensus model is useful for societies that have emerged from conflicts, or perhaps those nations with the potential for conflict. Executive power-sharing, Lijphart argued, is a critical part of consociational systems, as it helps to ensure that minorities also do have an equal voice in the governance of a deeply-divided and polarised country.

To this end, Lijphart has argued that for a democracy to function effectively, it is essential that a minority, especially a decent-sized or substantial one, can expect to be included in the majority at some point. In effect, Lijphart contends that if minority groups feel that they have got no chance of being part of the majority, then chances are that they can resort to violence to defend their own interests, thus leading, potentially, to social or political instability. As a result, in order to fend off such a possibility, in many deeply divided societies, political leaders representing various groups do adopt or develop strategies such as a coalition government, so that the minority groups will be able to participate effectively in governing. This is what Lijphart has termed consociational democracy.

One of the key advantages of a coalition government, as opposed to a singular party government, is that the inclusion of more than one party in the cabinet and government would ensure that a much wider segment of the electorate’s voice is included, instead of just hearing voices that only represent a singular political party.

Therefore, going forward, a majoritarian democracy in a post-Jammeh Gambian context is highly unlikely, in my view. In light of the fact that post-Jammeh Gambia is already a divided and polarised society, and the UDP on the verge of splitting into two, as there are strong indications that Barrow is going to form his own political party, to be able to effectively maintain political or democratic stability over the next coming years, power-sharing or a consensus democracy may be more suited to the current post-Jammeh Gambian context than majoritarian democracy.

If no party wins an absolute/outright majority of 51 percent or more, in the first round, our political parties will have to form alliances going to the second round of voting. The absolute majority system is likely to reduce the likelihood of one-party governments that dominated Gambia politics like we saw during both Jawara and Jammeh years. In short, parties will now struggle to win enough support in the first round of voting under the absolute majority system to be the sole party in power. In the context of post-Jammeh Gambia, the traditional single party governments are likely to be a thing of the past. Therefore, as the presidential and national assembly elections draw nearer, we can expect to see a greater degree of cooperation and pacts, among political parties, as no single political party, in my view, is well positioned to emerge with an overall majority in the first round of voting in the 2021 presidential election. Regardless of how badly this current coalition performs, long-term trends suggest that tactical alliances and coalitions are likely to become the norm in the near future.

In fact, this explains (the reason) why I am told, already over 20 potential political parties have made inquiries (or are about to make inquiries) at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) with a view to joining the 2021 presidential race. By the way, many of these aspiring presidential candidates have a well calculated strategy. Why? Because they have seen that people like Henry Gomez, Mai Fatty and others with no political base being rewarded with ministerial positions. For example, Dr Isatou Touray has no significant political base, but she is today the vice president of The Gambia. So, with absolute majority about to be introduced, many (not all) of these aspiring presidential candidates are relying on a possible (future) coalition if there is a second round, so that they can become ministers in a future coalition government. And needless to say, this scenario is highly likely, as no single party is likely to get 51 percent in the first round of voting.

Even a unified and an undivided UDP, composed of both Darboe and Barrow at the helm of things, was only projected by me to win 47 percent of the vote in the first round of the next presidential election. However, now that Adama Barrow’s UDP supporters have constituted a splinter group and are about to form their own political party, the predicted vote share for the UDP is now projected to reduce, given the fact that Barrow and Darboe are splitting. It is expected that there is going to be a reduction in the vote share of the Gambia’s largest political party. Furthermore, with the UDP and Barrow’s upcoming party likely to adopt fairly similar policies, Gambian voters, who traditionally would have voted for the UDP could possibly become disillusioned and vote for other parties.

Finally, I am not a betting man, but I think it is a safe to say that now that Darboe and Barrow are splitting, no one political party can win more than 40 per cent in the first round of voting in the next presidential election. Therefore, second round of voting would become inevitable, of course, assuming that the simple majority system would be discarded in due course, and absolute majority introduced.

Postscript
In his excellent 1974 PhD thesis, “The Role of the Gambian Political Parties in National Integration”, the late Professor Sulayman Nyang analysed (aspects of) Gambian politics within the theoretical framework of consociationalism and power sharing arrangements. To address some of the early difficulties of Gambian politics, especially in the immediate aftermath of independence in 1965, Nyang drew on the consociational theory as advocated by Arend Lijphart. But emeritus Professor Arnold Hughes, in his 1982 paper, “The Limits of ‘Consociational Democracy’ in The Gambia”, differed with Nyang over the issue. Arnold’s paper, outlined the limitations of the consociational democracy in the context of post-Independence Gambia under Jawara.

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