Sunday, September 18, 2016

Why is unity still eluding the Gambian opposition

From the archives of the published exactly two years to the day, on why, in our view, opposition unity is elusive now as ever before.

May be, we all need to reflect on the issues that matter the most and not on tangential ones that can only make the effort to unite even more elusive.

  First published 18th September 2014

Unity among the Gambian opposition is as elusive as it is frustrating to supporters of the political parties generally considered the opposition.  Why is this the case, especially when they number three to four that are functionally operational, the biggest of which represents between 80-70% of the total number of opposition votes cast in any presidential election.

Compared to any of its regional neighbors, and everything else being equal, it should follow that the challenges facing the opposition in uniting against the ruling party should be less difficult than Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Liberia to name but a few.   There are more registered political parties in any of these countries than in The Gambia, and not by a small margins either.

In any one of these countries the number of registered parties are anywhere between five fold to over ten fold more than in The Gambia.  And in all of these countries, opposition parties uniting against the ruling party or the leading vote getter in the first round of elections have almost always been assured a win.  The party that leads the opposition, in every case has been the one with the second highest votes.

It is universally accepted norm and/or process governing a multi-party environment that is conspicuously absent in the Gambian electoral system which is a first-past-the-post rather than the more democratically acceptable system of 50+1.

The ruling A(F)PRC was never confident of its popularity among Gambian voters which led it to the change thus eliminating a run-off phase.  The opposition cried foul for a week or so and then proceeded to contest subsequent elections as if nothing has happened.

Gambian politics seemed to have regressed with time.  Although politics has also become more tribal with Jammeh - at least he's tried to make it all about tribe - he has not succeeded it transforming Gambian society into a tribal community.  In short, we have not become a society where once tribal affiliation determines your fate and success in society, although his Jola tribe has benefited appreciably, both in terms of social and economic/financial standing in society, than at anytime in Gambian history.

With the regression, comes deep rooted sectionalism that can be traced to the Jawara regime. To add the new privileged class created under the A(F)PRC regime, the cleavages became more pronounced.  The new political class, protective of its new-found status leaves little doubt to the rest of society as who is in charge, at least, politically, but flouting the power vested in them by the dictatorship.  The mix of old and new adds to the complexity of the new Gambian society which is reflected in the new political order.

The move by the AFPRC government to ban all political parties except the PDOIS was obviously a deliberate act designed to give the party advantage over any subsequent parties than the regime will allow to be formed.  Since it was certain than the elements of the PPP, from whom power was seized, will try to regroup as a party or join any opposition party other than PDOIS (given the ideological differences than existed between them) Jammeh and his military council  were certain the rivalry between the two will be carried over to post-1996 and beyond.

The soldiers got it right, and more.  Rightly or wrongly, PDOIS sees PPP in UDP and the suspicions and lack of trust that existed between the old rivals has now been transformed into a PDOIS and UDP rivalry. Of course, both parties will deny it but, we, Gambians, know better.

The intense rivalry between the opposition fits in well with the current first-past-the-post electoral system designed to eliminate the need for a second round which would have forced opposition to coalesce around the second highest vote getter or vote for the ruling APRC.

Jammeh and his political operatives also knew that without the 50+1 system, they were depriving the opposition of the surest tool available to extract unity by forcing the opposition, even if they despise each other, politically, because it is inherent in the system. The opposition would have been left with two options :  refuse to go to the polls to get rid of the APRC or to vote for the party representing the one with the second highest votes i.e the united opposition.  We think the answer is clear.

In trying to find out why unity among the opposition parties is elusive, we may have been making the case also for electoral reform that should seek to restore the 50+1 - a system that will force the opposition to unite, a feat they've been unable to achieve in two decades.  All of our neighbors have the system that allows a run-off in the event that no one party enjoys the plurality of the electorate.  Why should we allow ourselves to be the exception?  Why?