As with Africa, so with the Gambia. The ideologies that held together the big political groupings of the 20th century is fraying; likewise, the millennials in active politics have lowered the barriers to joining established political groups.
Political parties are multiplying and some see this as a cause for celebration. A longer menu means that citizens can vote for parties that more closely match their beliefs. This is good and increases political engagement.
Countries with proportional-representation systems, which tend to have more parties, have higher voter turnout than first-past-the-post countries such as the Westminster parliamentary system experienced in the Gambia.
I believe the Gambian people don’t need so many political parties, especially when they only exist for selfish reasons. In a lawful sense, this trend is just a demonstration of individual rights. Freedom of association is and should continue to be an important hallmark of democracy. However, we must give some thought to whether an abundance of political parties (especially those formed for selfish reasons) is a positive feature for our electoral politics.
Having too many parties is often unwieldy. Coalitions become harder to form and often include strange bedfellows. Yet, excessive fragmentation has drawbacks. As parties subdivide, countries become harder to govern. A coalition of small parties is not obviously more representative than one big-tent party. Big parties are also coalitions of interests and ideologies, but they are usually more disciplined than looser groups, and so more likely to get things done.
Minor parties and independents are attracting support in protest, or in the now-desperate hope that they will at least shake things up, perhaps even drive governments and oppositions toward better economic and social outcomes. But they too are mostly opportunistic, and populist, and often “extreme”, knowing they will never have to deliver. Moreover, without experience and the requisite skills, they too may soon be “absorbed” or “defeated” by the system.
However, for a nation with a modest population of 1.9 million, it is puzzling that we have so many political parties championing “our interests”. According to the Independent Electoral Commission, 11 political parties and independents are registered and regarded as “active” under the Electoral law and a number on this list seem to be surviving only by name and lack any sort of serious leadership or organizational structure.
Meanwhile, several others have merged with larger parties, and should be obsolete. The average Gambian would probably be hard pressed to name even some of these “lesser known” parties or its leaders; yet, they have managed to continue existing on the fringes of society.
According to reliable sources, more political parties are taking applications from more new parties. If these are approved, we would have more than 20 political parties in this tiny country! And I thought we were suffering from a lack of political maturity.
The numbers are certainly astounding, but the trend of mushrooming parties has long been around and tends to peak during each election season. The emergence of new parties has been described as the “arrival of the fruiting season” in the sense that these parties and their leaders actively hunt for “nearly ripe fruit” to fulfil their personal interests. My observation hits the nail on the head. How else do we explain the glut of parties out there and only a handful with any credibility?
While the numbers indicate otherwise, it does not appear as if that many parties protect the people’s interests. Were that really the case, we would all have a lot less to complain about, wouldn’t we?
Instead, we see a familiar cycle – a new party is registered, touts itself as being inclusive to all, promises the heavens, fails to garner substantial support, and eventually fades into the periphery. The glaring problem with such parties is that their origins stem from a knee-jerk reaction and are usually driven by revenge, which is hardly the right mindset to begin any political journey.
Their leaders are mostly disgruntled individuals cast aside by their former parties and now acting in the selfish interest of preserving their own political survival. This phenomenon is not unique to the Gambia. Our neighboring country Senegal has 300 political parties and 41 coalition parties, which can also be excessive compared with the size of their population of 14 million people. The same goes for other African countries, which have dozens of parties, although only a fraction of these are represented in parliament.
Since the last general election, many new parties have been born because of major shake-ups in the political landscape. Ultimately, too many parties spoil the political broth. Everyone wants a slice of the pie and this leads to plenty of squabbling over ministerial posts, seat allocations, and who calls the shots.
Mixed up in this mess are certain parties that carry on despite not being strong enough to participate in the electoral process and thus influence meaningful change. So, they end up tagging themselves to a political coalition in the hope that it will boost their own number of followers and offer a chance of appointment to a ministerial or diplomatic position. It usually doesn’t, and this is how the rot begins.
Short of wanting the Independent Electoral Commission to declare a limit on the number of political parties that can be registered, there needs to be more quality control or we risk being divided further as a society. Perhaps more stringent requirements should be met before any individual can register a political party, and this includes the increasing cases where an older or defunct party is taken over and renamed. More crucially though, the major political players in this country must lead the way by ending the politics of segregation and practicing more inclusiveness instead. But let’s take one step at a time.