Cherno Baba Jallow

A heavy defeat at the polls should send the United Democratic Party (UDP) back to the drawing board. After asking itself what went wrong, it should then start looking for a leader with a broad appeal.

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Failing to impress on a fatally-executed petition to the Gambian Supreme Court and hanging, fore and aft, onto the self-emitting miasma of a “stolen election”, the United Democratic Party is worsening its malaise and unless the party changes tack, it risks further alienation, and before long, the beginnings of political necrosis.

Almost a month since the presidential election and the comprehensive flameout of its candidate Ousainou Darboe, the UDP is still earlobe-deep in denial. It still cannot come to terms with defeat, a defeat they had not seen coming. Translation: the 2021 presidential election was a shoo-in for Darboe; it was his to lose. His rival, the incumbent president Adama Barrow, stood nary a chance.

The Greek philosopher Sophocles had a warning for such premature certitude: “one must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been.”

On voting day, and even before the first results started coming in, the perceptive mind had picked on certain signs. These signs, redolent of the tectonic movements in the last days of the campaign, were allegorical in how the night would go. Some flashbacks:

After casting his vote, Barrow stepped up to the microphones. He sounded upbeat, and it wasn’t hard to notice his buoyancy, the buoyancy of incumbency. And Darboe, hobbled by a leg injury, was assisted with a walker and by a group of his supporters.

The optics of a physically-debilitated candidate publicly struggling to cast a vote or to mount a steady gait during a media presentation, can be electorally fatal. The recoiling effects of such ungainly glimpses have the propensity to steer the decisions of last-minute, undecided voters.

But the confluence of the last-minute decision-making of vacillating voters and a hobbling candidate, was marginal to the outcome of the presidential elections. Darboe’s loss was more about him, the broad strokes of his candidacy, and about his party, its campaigning and messaging and its public relations

For the UDP, acknowledging its failures at the polls must begin with its candidate. He was lackluster, better at spawning obsequiousness out of his supporters than attracting the support of those beyond his immediate vicinity.

It was also how the UDP sold Darboe to the electorate. To his supporters, Darboe was “Baba”, a Mansa before Mansaya. He couldn’t do any wrong, he was untouchable and irreplaceable. He was the embodiment of soulcraft.

In The Gambia, we are used to seeing politicians getting feted on and turned into mini-gods, but only after they had acquired power. But with the Darboe phenomenon, it is the reverse. He has already been turned into a demi-god even before attaining any political power. This is a dangerous asymmetry.

But it is the politics of pageantry over substance, embellishment over reality, resentment over fecundity.

The UDP entered the 2021 presidential campaign with a lot of resentment against not only one but two opponents. One of them was, once upon a time, a member of their inner circle: Barrow. He, instead, had become president and had upstaged the favored one (Darboe).

Lawyer Darboe campaigning during the last election

The other opponent wasn’t in the race: former dictator Yahya Jammeh. He had beaten Darboe in every contest and had jailed him, too. A Darboe victory would have been the ultimate pay-back, the last laugh for the “perennial candidate” against his former arch-rival.

The corollary to all this is the sheer immensity of UDP’s efforts to make Darboe president —- they wanted it so bad for him. They wanted to “reward” him for his pain and suffering, for the humiliation at the hands of Jammeh and for the “betrayal” of Barrow. This inordinate concentration on Darboe had intentionally sidestepped his major shortcomings (lack of experience, poor communicative skills, unpalatability, etc.).

Going into the future, it is highly unlikely the UDP would engage in such supine acquiescence towards any of its next leaders. The Darboe-craze, except for its lingering effects, would have creased to exist in the party. A new leader won’t be so saintly. Such a leader could be Talib Bensouda, the mayor of the Kanifing Municipal Council. He is young, eloquent and has a beautiful family. He’s had five years of executive experience —- a good start for a sojourn into the presidency. He is the kind of a leader the UDP needs to broaden its base, to smoothen its rough edges, to show modesty, and humility in the give-and-take of persuasive politics.

Forged out of the embers of a quasi-military dictatorship in 1996, the UDP’s strongest asset in its 25-year lifespan, a common theme in the longevity of political parties, has been its fortitude. The party has a staying power. What it has lacked is a visionary leader who can stitch eloquence with profundity —— the profundity of ideas. Bensouda could be such a leader. But his coming into being will hinge on several exigencies. Two stand out: his exoneration from the recent corruption scandal at the KMC and his safety from Hurricane Barrow barreling down from the east.

The forthcoming parliamentary elections will offer another stress test for our new-fangled democracy. Will a bullish Barrow and his NPP sweep the polls, and thus send us back to our time-traveled one-party dominance? Will Bensouda survive the electoral tremors? Will the UDP?

Coming months will inform us accordingly.