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Opinions of Thursday, 14 July 2016

Columnist: Agbai, Stephen

Voter apathy may deny NDC 2016 victory

It is every citizen's dream to feel part of his or her government they elect - based on promises to better their lives in all areas. How then, is it that many citizens today do not care about who leads them? In a democracy, this behaviour is what is termed voter apathy.

Voter apathy occurs when eligible voters do not vote in public elections due to disillusionment with the political process or politicians in general.

When a voter feels helpless and unable to influence important events through elected leaders, they tend to stay out of the political process such as registration to vote, verification during voter register exhibition exercise and voting itself.

The phenomenon of voter apathy is a global malaise political scientists and governments are battling to arrest. It is common in many developed democracies including the United States of America (USA) where, for example, less than 15% of eligible voters participated in state-wide primaries in 2014, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE).

In fact, the number of Americans heading to the polls each election has been declining for the last fifty years (http://thinkprogress.org/election/2014/11/10/3590959/turnout-in-the-midterm-election-was-the-lowest-since-1942/).

In Ghana, district level elections tend to record alarming voter turnouts. In 2015 for example, only 39% of eligible voters participated in the local elections, according to the Electoral Commission of Ghana.

Several factors underly voter apathy in Ghana.

One of the key reasons for the worsening voter apathy is lack of agency - a situation where citizens doubt their ability to make a difference or feel under-represented in government due to lack of proportional representation.

Additionally, scandalous and sensational media reports about politicians and their surrogates make voters see politics as inconsequential and politicians as dishonest and unfaithful. Another major cause of voter apathy is a lack of interest in the political process due to disenchantment with existing interventions made by elected officers in the course of their administration.

The absence of reliable and inexpensive basic needs such as electricity, water, healthcare, security and housing can also cause citizens to decide to stay indifferent to the process of election.

Some voters are also simply put off by the affluence and profligacy exhibited by politicians who before getting into elected public offices were modest and frugal in their lifestyle.

The overall effect of voter apathy is that, the few who turn out to vote in an election choose leaders who do not necessarily represent majority of the population. A high voter turnout, on the contrary, is thus seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the elected.

General Elections in Ghana tend to record very high turnouts. In 2012, for example, the average voter turnout across all administrative regions was 79%, according to official figures released by the Electoral Commission of Ghana.

This means that some 21% of eligible voters, representing 2,911,908 votes, did not vote. That number may include the dead, people who may have lost their ID cards in the intervening periods of registration and voting or were prevented from voting, or people who were holed up in private engagements that could not enable them make it to their polling stations to vote.

A significant percentage of that number would have fallen in the voter apathy category. In a country where Presidential elections are won by as low as 40,000 votes, no politician should wish away a single vote. It is for that reason that voter apathy must be treated with utmost seriousness.

Although there is no reliable statistical evidence about elections in Ghana which shows that voter apathy tends to favour opposition candidates, the causes of voter apathy suggest that ruling political parties are more likely to bear the brunt. This is because they are seen, rightly so, as chiefly responsible and duty-bound for representing the interest of the masses and providing their needs at all times.

With election 2016 around the corner, political parties, including the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), have accelerated their campaigns. The ruling party set their campaign in motion with the live TV launch of what has become known as the "Green Book" which contains major projects the government has completed or is in the process of completing.

Some of its content are the universities built by the current government in the Volta and Brong Ahafo Regions, the Kwame Nkrumah Circle Interchange, Eastern Corridor Road, Community Day Senior High Schools, hospitals among others. Some members of the party have formed many unofficial campaign groups such as Celebrities for Mahama, Doves for Mahama, I Choose JM and Zongo for Mahama.

Their core mandate is to work with the official campaign team at national, regional and constituency levels to win over both existing and first-time voters to the NDC whilst maintaining their core, devoted base to vote for the party in the 2016 General Elections.

With new political parties being outdoored by splinter groups from opposition parties, no party can leave their campaign and its outcome to chance. This is particularly imperative in the case of the ruling party, which has a determined combination of an ageing flag bearer and ever vociferous and vibrant Vice Presidential hopeful on its heels.

The NPP, despite their unending intra-party conflict, is daring to make or break this time around. Therefore, they are promising heaven without immediate responses to how to actualize them, yet hoping to dethrone the ruling government.

As such the NDC, if they really mean business, will have to do thorough and realistic analyses of their chances in the upcoming elections and then devise practical means by which they can reach out to all and sundry. A chunk of the eligible voters that may threaten their chance to retain their position in government from 2017 is the often forgotten "Apathetic Voter".

In my business trips across the length and breadth of Ghana in the last few months, I have come across many of them. They are often reserved, unenthusiastic and indifferent to whoever wins the next elections. They no more believe in promises. They don't believe that their lives can be improved directly through policies and programmes by governments. They don't believe that if they vote, their votes will be counted.

Also, they don't believe that the things that the ruling government pats itself on the back for are worth celebrating. They consider them all average achievements that are expected of every government. They have therefore decided to put their destiny in their own hands and leave politics for people who wish to engage in it. They're the ones who will jump on any available flight to anywhere on the globe apart from Ghana.

Unfortunately for the ruling NDC, many of those I have encountered on my trips are their professed sympathisers. Many of them claim they voted in previous elections for the NDC but will stay out this year because they are sorely disappointed in the John Mahama-led administration. They have no or regular electricity despite paying realistic bills.

Also they have little or no access to potable water. They leave in fear of armed robbery in their homes and businesses. They pay too much rent because the 6-month legally acceptable rent advance is not being implemented. Worse yet they have limited access to Medicare.

These are the issues bothering the growing number of voters who intend to stay out of the upcoming elections. If they are to be believed, we should expect a significant drop from the 2012 turnout of 79%. It may not be as bad as the 39% turnout recorded in the 2015 District Level Elections, but it can be enough to deny the ruling party another chance at ruling Ghana from 2017.

So, how can the NDC stem the tide? How can they disabuse the minds of eligible voters who are apathetic towards voting this year, even though it appears late in the day to cause any dramatic turnaround in the fortune of the nation and their individual lives?

The solution is simple: stop the wholesale campaign, identify and deal with the specific needs of each segment of the voter population. A range of measures can be adopted in that direction.

1. Fix the power crisis now

The tendency to blame external saboteurs, often Nigeria, for our crippling power crisis is no more fashionable. And it is more annoying and shuttering hearing the President lead that chorus. With the promise of putting an end to the crisis for good failing to materialise, the least the apathetic voter wants to hear is excuses.

The government and its campaigners should therefore focus attention on propagating cogent messages to voters when they go out on their outreach. Did I hear someone say that fighting establishments over subsidies-realignment debates do not auger well for the ruling party?

2. Launch party manifesto now and disseminate its content speedily and widely among the populace.

In the course of propagating what the party intends to bring onto the table from 2017 if re-elected, the party ought to consciously and methodically match its previous campaign and manifesto promises with actuals. Performance measurement is very important because it is a sure and realistic way of assessing one's performance fairly and realistically.

This will then result in a review and readjustment of old promises to meet reality. When voters realise that what is promised is delivered or will be reshaped to be doable, they tend to manage their expectations more realistically and then give politicians ample time to achieve them. Anything below that calls for mistrust and apathy or rejection.

3. Focus on the real issue; don't run away from the truth.

The average voter is growing smarter and wiser by the day. They can no longer be fooled with propaganda. The things you promise to do, work hard at them and deliver. Ruling a nation is a serious business that must not be done playing to the gallery in the company of a usually distractive opposition.

The practice whereby people in government leave their core businesses and spend the whole day trying in vain to win time-wasting media wars ought to cease. Talk little, do more. Discerning and unenthusiastic voters will see in between.

4. Keep your campaign frugal and measured (at least on the outside).

It is often the case for politicians in power to exhibit gross elegance by dissipating state resources during campaigns. For whatever the reason, they believe this will best endear them to the voter. Wise up, Mr. Politician. Such practices only put people off and send you across as insensitive and mean in the face of hardship.

The discerning voter will not give you his or her vote, even if they decide not to vote for your opponent. Sad we still see 100-car convoys in our dear country today during campaign tours!

5. Wear a listening ear, and don't consider every critic an opposition member.

In our part of the world, dissent is seldom appreciated, and anyone who opines a contrasting view about governance is seen as an ungrateful opposition member or sympathiser, who should not be countenanced but crushed or ignored at least. This is so wrong and detrimental to the success of a party that needs votes to win a critical election.

Many stay out of elections because they do not feel represented or heard. When they talk, they're clothed in opposition apparel as though they do not have minds of their own and cannot independently assess economic circumstances and take a decision on who leads them.

Politicians, especially ruling parties, should understand that hardship is not a respecter of persons, race, party or religion. If a government in power imposes hardship on the citizens through incompetence, it affects everybody including those whose vote catapulted them into power.

As a result, not all of the people will stay mute and wallow in the mess. A few may join the usual career naysayers to voice out their frustrations. They must be identified and appealed to in modest and respectful ways so as not to draw their ire or indignation towards deciding to withdraw their franchise for the party.

As the NDC attempts to drive its way back into power come 2017, it is my humble advice that they consider the aforesaid as well as many others unlisted here in order to reinvigorate their supporters who are fast growing into a powerful constituency of indifferent and apathetic voters.

They must identify these people and their needs and adequately address them or show great signs and understanding of their needs and assure them of revival should another chance be given them.

Long Live Democracy! Long Live Ghana!

Stephen Agbai is a Supply Chain Management (SCM) Professional, an administrator and the producer of Accra based Prime 89.1 FM’s weekend current affairs programme, Wonsom Wonsom.

Writer's e-mail: agbai49@gmail.com