By Musa Bah
Perception, it is said, is very important in politics. Politicians and political parties want to sell their agendas to the people for them to be voted into office. All politicians want to be seen in a good light by the people as politics is about numbers. No politician who says s/he does not care about numbers would be taken seriously.
It is for this reason that politicians and political parties need to be very mindful about how they are perceived by the public. It is important that they take every precaution to ensure that their image is not tainted.
In The Gambia, almost all the political parties have their own sets of problems. Mostly, these are perceptions and may or may not have anything to do with actuality. Whichever it is, they need to work earnestly to seek solutions in order to stand a better chance of winning the hearts and minds of the people.
The PDOIS is perhaps among the oldest parties in The Gambia currently. Yet, with all the good work that the party has done – continues to do – they cannot show much for it. Take for instance, the previous National Assembly elections; the PDOIS won only four seats.
The party has contested almost in all the presidential elections in the past thirty or so years and they have never reached the twenty percent mark in terms of votes.
Despite the efforts they make in educating the public and the benevolent work some of their key figures do, they have not been able to persuade the Gambian voters to entrust them with power.
What is the problem?
As I said earlier, one of the greatest challenges the PDOIS has is that of perception. The PDOIS is seen by many Gambians as a party of the elite, those very learned and knowledgeable. The public is of the view that the plans and progranmmes of the PDOIS cannot be easily understood by the ordinary person and thus, it is only for the intellectuals. This may or may not be true but the party itself has not taken serious measures to counter this view. This is what is harming their efforts. They must seek to demystify this view if they are to ever make inroads in Gambian politics.
Another perception that is ubiquitous about the PDIOS – this one perhaps is shared by other parties as well – is that it is a little too cultic for the liking of the average Gambian. Many people believe that the party revolves around Hon. Halifah Sallah and Hon. Sidia Jatta. And the fact that only the duo has been contesting for the party in the past two or three decades gives credence to this view. Again, they must seek to engage the public in a positive way to change this perception. They can do this by fielding in another – perhaps a younger – candidate come next election.
The United Democratic Party (UDP) is another of the political parties which has a lot of problems, most of which are perceptions – and can be confronted positively in order to send a clear signal that they are far from reality, if indeed they are.
One of the most conspicuous and oft-repeated is that the UDP was formed out of anger and frustration. It is alleged that this party came into being because Yahya Jammeh, the then president, sought to marginalize the Mandinka ethnic group. This ethnic group – the largest in the country according to the latest census – saw this as an affront and therefore some of them decided to set up a party which will restore their glory. This is a view that they should work on debunking in order to stand a better chance in the next election.
Closely linked to the above challenge, is the fact that some people – nay, many people – see the UDP as a tribal party. They allege that the UDP is a party of the Mandinka ethnic group and this has prevented many people from joining its ranks.
Granted, everyone knows that the constitution of The Gambia does not allow a party to be formed based on tribal, regional or religious lines; but, it does not stop the people from speculating and spreading certain views even if they are not true.
There are many things that can show that UDP is not a tribal party, but the party has to make efforts to bring these to light so as to change the perception of the people.
Like the PDOIS, the UDP is also seen by some people as a cult. It is said that there is no distinguishing mark between Lawyer Ousainou Darboe, the party leader, and the party itself. When you say Lawyer Darboe, you mean UDP and vice versa.
Again, the fact that it is only Darboe who has been contesting in the name of the party for the past two decades does not help. The party has to work on this and ensure that these views are changed in the minds of the people.
I was once hosting a radio talk show discussing the invitation of Mr Mamma Kanddeh, the party leader, for questioning by the police and someone called and said that because I was a member of GDC I was angry. I gently asked the caller how he reached the conclusion that I belonged to the GDC and he said, ‘You are Mr Bah, not so?’ I said yes, my name is Musa Bah. He said, ‘Exactly, GDC is a party of Fulas and you are a Fula.’ So, the GDC also has the problem of being branded a Fula party.
Also, the GDC has all the other problems associated with the ones highlighted in the earlier parties. It also has fielded one candidate, Mamma Kandeh, since its inception. It should also make efforts to make sure that it does not continue to be seen as a cultist party. That can be done by offering a new candidate in subsequent elections.
Almost all the other parties in the country have similar problems to the ones addressed above. Thus, it won’t be necessary to talk about them separately anymore.
What can the parties do to help in the democratization process?
One thing that is missing in almost all the political parties in the country is the absence of meaningful engagement except during elections. Most of the parties will only be heard when elections are fast approaching. When elections are over, these political parties hang their boots, so to speak, until another round of elections.
This is not helpful to the country’s democratization process. They must engage fully throughout so that they can make more impact in the lives of Gambians.
It is beyond comprehension that none of the political parties in the country ever has a shadow government. It will be helpful if each party always has a shadow government so that they can engage the people by giving them alternative policies.
For instance, if the Ministry of Agriculture or Finance and Economic Affairs is not seen to be doing a good job, the Agriculture or Finance Minister from the shadow government of any of the parties can bring alternative solutions and thus trigger a national discourse so that things will improve.
Another thing the political parties can do is to explain their policies and programmes to the citizens not only during election campaigns but throughout the year. They should create platforms from which they can reach the populace and tell them of their plans and policies.
Opposition political parties play – or should play – a key role in national development. They should be part of the governance process by engaging and sharing ideas on the day-to-day running of the country.