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OPINION: Alliance and coalition politics in The Gambia 1960-2016: A preliminary analytical survey

Jan 8, 2020, 12:01 PM

The Concept of Political Coalition 

A political coalition denotes a temporary union of two or more social agents or political parties for the purpose of collectively achieving an outcome or objective which could not be achieved by any single member acting independently. According to Bidycet Chakrabarty who studied coalition politics in India, (a country known for its fragmented party system –a function of the character of the polity), coalition building processes inherently include both accretion, the convergence of ideologically heterogeneous parties and segmentation due to the frequent conflicts and divisions among participating entities (Forging Power: Coalition Politics in India, 2006).

Coalitions are associated with parliamentary democracies and they may be formed either before elections or post-elections, although the later has received more research attention over the past decades. Two broad views have dominated the studies of either pre or post-election coalitions. The first of these was more forcefully advanced by William Riker in his pioneering work, The Theory of Political Coalitions (1962). Riker argued that the desire for office is the principal motivating factor that drives political parties to form coalitions and that, as office provides ‘fixed rewards’, a coalition should not be larger than the minimal winning size (size principle) to ensure that the rewards of office (payoffs) are not shared with others whose contribution to winning may be negligible and whose participation in the coalition may be superfluous (C. Mershon, The Costs of Coalition, Stanford University Press, 2002). In other words, a winning coalition in the first place should include only relevant agents, and the allocation of cabinet portfolios must be limited only to coalition partners who made significant contributions to the success of the coalition and not to any other insignificant partners.

The second set of theories emphasizes the policy motives of political parties. This approach treats political actors as policy seekers rather than office seekers, namely that they are more interested in having certain policies implemented once they enter government. According to this approach, parties coalesce with others with whom they share policy preferences in a minimum connected winning coalition. As these parties are connected by policy choices and with less policy distance among them, there is less likelihood of conflict among participants unlike under the power or office seeking arrangements (C. Plott, “A Notion of Equilibrium and its Possibility Under Majority Rule”, American Economic Review V. 57, 1967).

In general, all domestic political alliances and coalitions tend to be short-run arrangements, unlike some strategic international alliances which involve higher levels of cooperation and longer-term perspectives.  Coalitions go through a three-phase life cycle- formation, management or governance and termination, and what happens in stage one can have significant effects on the succeeding phases. The quality of the agreements reached for the formation of any coalition is always crucial. Carefully crafted coalition agreements are considered permanently binding and may be altered only with the full consent of the signatories ( Kyle Hyndman and Debraj Ray, “Coalition Formation with Binding Agreements”, Review of Economic Studies, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Oct., 2007), pp. 1125-1147). Conventionally, coalition agreements are duly signed and widely publicized for the general information of the electorate. In high literate societies this process could include extensive media coverage and the publication and distribution of copies of the signed documents. In some instances the coalition agreements may involve multiple documents each of which deals with some specific aspects of the coalition. For example, in the case of the Conservative-Liberal Democrats Coalition of 2010 in Britain, following the  general election  of that year which resulted  in a hung parliament, (with no party emerging with an overall majority in the House of Commons), three distinct agreements were signed by the two sides, Prime Minister David Cameron for the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats: 1) the Interim Agreement setting out key policies agreed by the parties, 2) the Programme for Government Agreement which provided details of the policy objectives of the coalition and 3) the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform also known as the Procedure Agreement. (R. Hazel et al., The politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrats Government Works, Oxford 2012). In spite of this elaborate set of agreements, the coalition could not avoid a major friction over the Liberal Democrats’ long- standing objective of replacing the House of Lords with a more democratic voter-chosen chamber, an idea that was scuppered by the Conservatives even though it was included in the Coalition Agreement. Apart from this major pressure point, the two parties had some other serious policy differences during the course of the coalition to the extent that their leaders had shouting matches, and during one confrontation in 2013 they nearly exchanged blows, as Cameron revealed in his recent book, For The Record (HarperCollins, 2019).

Although even the most well conceived coalition agreements do not always guarantee success, they, however, serve as useful foundational instruments for coalition building and management. In addition, several other factors are important in determining the effectiveness of political parties in partnership arrangements. In their study of local level coalition behavior T. Mizrahi and B. B. Rosenthal “Complexities of Coalition Building: Leaders’ Successes, Strategies, Struggles, and Solutions”, Social Work, Vol. 46, No.1 (January 2001) developed a useful framework for understanding coalitions. The framework comprises four components:  external conditions, commitment of actors, their contributions, and competence. This framework will be discussed in some detail and partially applied to the brief analysis of Coalition 2016 later.


Early Attempts in Alliance Politics


Alliance or coalition politics is not entirely new in The Gambia, although earlier pre-independence relationships between parties were low-key, tactical and ephemeral and largely involving mutual support pacts whereby one party supported the candidate of the other in districts it had not fielded candidates or in areas where the contending candidate of either partner party  might have been weak. The earliest such cooperative arrangement was between the Democratic Party (founded in 1951 by the Rev. J. C. Faye and the Gambia Muslim Congress formed in 1952 by I.M. Garba-Jahumpa. These parties forged an alliance, the Democratic Congress Alliance (DCA), for the first parliamentary elections of 1960; although the two parties started holding joint meetings in September 1959, they announced the formation of a “non-sectarian alliance’ on April 7, 1960 – just over a month before the election in late May. If the objective of the leaders of the alliance was to effectively counter the dominance of P.S. Njie and his United Party in Bathurst, they must have been shell-shocked by the results of the election: Except for the Jollof/Portuguese Town ward won by A. B. Njie, the DCA lost the rest of the five Bathurst constituencies including those of the alliance leaders. (Sulayman Nyang, “The Historical Development of Political Parties in The Gambia”, 1975; D. Perfect and A. Hughes, “Gambian Electoral Politics”, in A. Saine et al eds., State and Society in The Gambia,Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press 2012.

Before the 1962 parliamentary elections, the PPP and DCA also formed a mutual support pact, with the results confirming the growing PPP influence especially in the protectorate, winning a total of 18 seats out of the 32 seats for the House while the DCA could only manage to retain its single Bathurst ward of Jollof/Portuguese Town. Realizing the unshakable strength of the UP in Bathurst, Jahumpa renamed his party the Congress Party, perhaps after having realized that the religious implications that the previous party (Gambia Muslim Congress) carried were not helpful. After this adjustment, he turned to P. S. Njie in a United Party/Congress Party alliance for the 1966 election. This time Jahumpa was able to win his Bathurst seat before breaking away from the UP, dissolving his party and joining the PPP in 1968.This move earned him important cabinet positions in the PPP administration, first as Minister of Health and later as Minister of Finance. According to Nyang (1975), even the PPP and UP formed a short-lived alliance shortly before independence and Perfect and Hughes (2012) have also noted the temporary United Party and National Liberation Party pact of 1977 and the National Convention Party and UP alliance of 1987; all of these alliance efforts were inconsequential as they had all failed to make any significant impact on electoral outcomes. Fundamentally, the pattern of alliance or coalition politics before independence up to the 1980s centered on transient and near-informal relationship building, without any long-term strategic considerations or binding agreements. During this period, most of the smaller or weaker parties found themselves in a quandary and were looking for any opportunities to enhance their electoral fortunes such as joining forces with bigger and stronger parties in decidedly asymmetric partnerships.


K. M. Bayo

January 02, 2020


To be continued