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Opinions of Saturday, 7 August 2010

Columnist: Mensah, Kobby

The pros and cons of early political primaries

The wisdom of the early bird:
The pros and cons of early political primaries

Early bird, they say, catches the worm. Our ancestors could not be any clearer advising us about how preparations and most importantly, early preparations could pitch you right ahead of your competitors, peers and even loved ones. Not only does it allow you abundance of time to make right what went wrong, it affords you confidence. Knowing the wrongs and having time to right them is part of leadership; it’s that aspect of life that separates visionaries from the laggers. In politics this assertion is long held in most polities across the globe and same in Ghana perhaps. In this article, I attempt to highlight the wisdom in conducting early primaries; both presidential and parliamentary, and the potential dangers involved.

Though different from the Ghanaian practices and experiences, political primaries in the United States have a long tradition and are much more detailed from what we have in Ghana. As a result, space in this column is substantially limited to allow a thorough review and so restricting myself to the case in point will do, I guess. In the US ‘primaries’ and ‘caucuses’; the processes through which parties select their presidential candidates from State to State until a winner is declared, there is a tradition called front loading. Front loading simply means that a State organises its presidential nomination contest on or before what is known as the Super Tuesday, which is usually scheduled for February or March of the election year – the election itself is held in November. In 2008, Super Tuesday fell on February 5th. Again, Super Tuesday is basically the day on which the largest numbers of primaries are held and in 2008, Twenty four (24) States organised their contests on this day.

In 2008, according to an article published by a group called the Century Forum, almost thirty states had decided to hold their presidential nomination contests on or before the Super Tuesday, February 5th. According to one of the contributors to the group’s issue brief, Rob Richie of FAIRVOTE, a significant majority of the country appeared likely to vote by the end of the first week in February and the parties were expected to have elected their leaders by then, fully nine months before the general election. The benefits? According to Richie, it allows the winning candidates in these early primaries the foothold to raise tens of millions of dollars to be ready for the larger contests. Most importantly, the early primaries afford the parties’ time to initiate and shape the national conversation about their identity and future direction; defining themselves and their priorities. Such a conversation, Richie continues, is better when it is deliberate rather than rushed.
The early selection of electoral candidate is not only a feature of the American politics alone but of others such as Britain. In fact, it is a staple in British politics where leaders are chosen almost five (5) years ahead of the elections (although could be changed) as they represent their parties in parliament and lead the parliamentary battlefield in what is called the ‘prime ministers question time.’ The leader, throughout his or her performance in parliamentary sessions, has the opportunity to gain prestige and wield enormous influence possible to bring together a broad coalition of support amongst even very divergent views within the party and outside it.

From these two examples above, as in the US and British politics, one is likely to observe a similar scenario in Ghana leading to the 2000 elections though differences abound in the three countries’ political systems. Leaders of the NPP and political pundits agree that by selecting their candidate, John Kufuor, two (2) years before the elections in 2000 afforded the candidate time to initiate and shape the national conversation on the economy, on health, on civil liberties – where it made great strides, on corruption and most importantly to the party itself, on whether NPP was factional – elitist and tribal. Through this period, the party managed to bring together a coalition of support ranging from the media to civil society through the national conversation initiated by the leader when he was selected. The truth is, in party politics as in any other endeavour, absence of a leader means absence of direction; of message; of cohesion and of success as a consequence.
Nevertheless, the early selection of a presidential candidate comes with it challenges. The party that selects candidate early should expect to spend far more of it resources and if care is not taking, could empty the electoral war chest even before the contest itself begins. And most importantly, especially in our case where there seems to be the emergence of the ‘new tribal;’ Akofo Addo boys vs. Allan Kyeremanteng boys, Mills camp vs. Rawlings camp and possibly the camp of ‘John the 4th’ (Vice president John Mahama) vs. Spio’s camp in a future NDC leadership contest, could one envisage what will happen when the presidential primary is organised early and that of parliamentary is left for a later date? Certainly chaos, with people fast forwarding themselves closer to the centre of power with all sorts of allegiances; finance, ethnic, religious etc.
And what happens? Breakaway factions emerge with everyone trying to get their grievances heard in the media, allowing very little time to heal the wounds and bring the party together; the very objective of an early primary. The result is a hundred fold possibility of electoral defeat, no doubt. The question party leadership should ask themselves is: early elections of what; presidential candidate and members of parliament or only the former? If only the former, what are the structures in place to ensure harmonious environment prevails in conducting the latter later in the day? A word to the wise...

Kobby Mensah
University of Sheffield