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Opinions of Monday, 2 August 2010

Columnist: Otchere-Darko, Gabby Asare

Why Atta Mills Pipped Nana


Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko

Ever since Arthur Kennedy published his book, ‘Chasing the Elephant into the Bush’, and more so since the NPP presidential primaries got going, several commentators have used the analysis of Larry Gibson to score points against Nana Akufo-Addo.

Leading that assault is one lady whose fighting spirit I admire so much, the former MP for Kwadaso and Mr. Kyerematen’s main woman in the Ashanti Region, Hilda Addo.

The argument of the Hildas is that Larry Gibson predicted that Prof John Atta Mills was more popular than Akufo-Addo, so for as long as President Mills is running, Akufo-Addo cannot be expected to win. Larry’s first opinion poll was conducted in May 2008 (in fact, the sampling was done between April 20 - May 6), five months after Nana Akufo-Addo was elected for the first time as flag-bearer. Prof Mills had been consistently on every NDC presidential ticket since 1996.

The question was more about name recognition not about which of the two men you would vote for. Mills was running his third election as presidential candidate and had been re-elected to lead his party back in December 2006. Ghanaians should look back at the kind of superior exposure Atta Mills had especially between 1996 and the 2000 elections. In 1999 and 2000, NDC strategists, with willing support from the state-owned media, decided to give more and more publicity to Vice President Mills than President Rawlings. He travelled and took more publicity assignments across the country than his boss.

He had more billboards and ads than candidate Kufuor. One of the major things that worked against Vice President Mills was that the nation had decided that it was time for Positive Change and in Kufuor, the NPP had a candidate who had received some national branding since 1992 and more so as a presidential candidate in 1996. Ghanaians were convinced that Kufuor was ready to lead.

Larry Gibson's first poll was conducted just weeks after NDC launched its campaign and selected its running mate. Larry Gibson had done another poll which showed that former President Rawlings was more popular than President Kufuor. That came as a shocker to many. But, really, should it have? There is a lot of talk these days that the NPP lost the 2008 elections because the party did not market well the achievements of President Kufuor.

The evidence shows that, to the contrary, the NPP spent more time trumpeting its achievements than its future programmes. Moreover, Larry Gibson’s polls had shown that Ghanaians simply were not convinced about the NPP record on the economy – the most important indicator on all the electoral indices.

It is important to disclose that at strategy meetings the candidate was advised to empathise more deeply with the sufferings of the masses. Arthur Kennedy was one of the passionate advocates of this position. I was among those who supported him on this, arguing that every government would have its positives and negatives and that the candidate should seek to address, albeit with some sensitivity, the negatives as perceived by the general public.

However, we all appreciated that it was a very delicate thing for a candidate of an incumbent party seeking a third term to do – also one has to place that in the context of the December 2007 NPP congress, and the decision of the President to throw his weight behind another candidate. Nana had to be careful about his utterances not being picked up and exaggerated by the mass media as a major criticism of President Kufuor, with all the ramifications.

How do you do so without indicting your own party's record? The usual dilemma of any candidate in his situation. In any event Nana made it clear that he would not go down that route. He genuinely believed that the NPP had enough of a positive message to sell.

Yet, polls had shown, for instance, that the NPP was perceived as corrupt. The NDC had made corruption a major campaign issue. This mightily dislocated the NPP campaign message. Yet, the party's candidate took a strategic decision of loyalty not to make serious political capital out of his own perceived incorruptibility.

He would only focus on the positives of the ruling party and not seek to disassociate himself from its shortcomings. "I was a leading member of the government for the best part of 8 years. You can't expect me to go out there and criticise decisions that I was or ought to have been a part of as a member of cabinet," he told his campaign strategists whenever this matter came up for debate.

Until Larry Gibson’s findings, we (NPP campaign strategists) were all looking at the major indices concerning the significant reduction of incidents of poverty and the expansion of people’s purchasing power, better wages, high GDP, access to mobile phones, etc. We had convinced ourselves that NPP had an excellent message on the economy.

We thought the economy was NPP’s strong campaign message so we kept hammering on it, comparing records; forcing John Mahama to say on his appointment as running mate to Mills that comparing records was mediocre. We felt then that it was hurting the NDC. But was it winning us votes? On paper, the 8-year NPP record on the economy was far superior to that of the NDC.

Larry showed to us that voters trusted the NPP, but on Education and Health – "You don't have time to change people's mind on the economy", he told us point blankly, against the protestation of Jake, Oboshie, Apraku and I, in particular. Our worry was that it would be suicidal to go into a crucial election, like the 2008 one was, without a strong message on the economy, what about jobs?

Larry responded it would be suicidal to go boasting about the economy. ‘Not the Economy – Stupid!’ he seemed to be saying to us. It would sound arrogant and ivory-towery. He wanted us to focus on health, added education and said we should leave it at that. No wonder several campaign messages after June focused on these two social areas. The only compromise struck was that jobs, prosperity and all should be linked to education and health - ie an educated workforce will boost the economy and the individual's job opportunities and standard of living.

So we focused on expanding the school feeding programme to all schools; free access to secondary education; decoupling children from their registered parents on the NHIS and offering free healthcare for all children, etc.

Larry Gibson’s work was not for public consumption. It was to inform him to inform campaign strategy. So the raw details were known only to a few. Arthur K, like the candidate, only benefited from the briefings of the opinion polls and other analysis made by Larry. I make this point because I believe had he the benefit of the details when his book was being written his comments on Larry’s work would have been a bit more beefy.

But, let me limit myself to the book, which has now become the Gospel of the Hildas. The chapter in the book on Larry Gibson starts: “The question of what was going to be our fundamental approach to the election was not clear until June 2008. Till then, the candidate had spent time visiting the Constituencies we lost and generally touting the NPP’s economic record.”

The fundamental approach to the election was clear from February, when the campaign team was outdoored. Perhaps, what was fundamentally wrong about the approach was the decision taken by the party that the candidate should stay away from constituencies where NPP had incumbent MPs -- to avoid being drawn into the constituency battles and exploited by parliamentary candidates, some boasting they supported Nana in the presidential primary and that their opponents did not.

Thus, the thinking of the party at the time was based on the volatile nature of the primaries and how the presidential candidate was being used to score primary points. If the truth be told, the NPP had very little time to mend primaries-induced cracks. The nature of the parliamentary primaries of 2008 was very costly in the negative impact it had against forming consensus and mobilising a united fighting force at the constituency level for December 7. It was this problem that contributed greatly to the NPP losing its majority in Parliament while still coming first in the presidential race on December 7.

The decision therefore to keep the presidential candidate away from held constituencies meant key regions such as Central, BA, Western, Ashanti and Eastern, where the NPP controlled a clear majority of seats, were not tackled aggressively by the candidate until after the parliamentary primaries, which took the best part of April and May.

In fact, the first ever billboard of the NPP presidential candidate was mounted on June 23, 2008 – yes! With a new candidate on the ballot paper and with less than six months to sell him, the campaign team had no option but to splash the nation with his billboards. This was to be later used against the NPP!

To appreciate how important years of name recognition and photo identification are in Ghanaian elections, there were registered voters in Cape Coast in the Central Region, Techiman in the Brong Ahafo Region, Suhum in the Eastern Region and Wa in the Upper West Region who could neither say who the NPP presidential candidate was nor identify him from his photograph in October 2008. Yes, with less than two months before the election. Some people even confused Akufo-Addo with Addo Kufuor.

E T Mensah once famously told a friend when rumours about Mills’ health were making the rounds, “Even if we have to put him in a wheel chair and sell him we will do so!” He was merely saying that Mills was “the man we have marketed over the years. We neither have the resources nor time to market someone else. That would be too risky.” It is easy to be won over by the instant mass media popularity of certain candidates and think that Accra and Kumasi represent the entirety or microcosm of the Ghanaian electorate.

Had Nduom decided to pull out of the presidential race on December 7 to put his support behind one of the candidates, we would have easily concluded that he added some 6-8 percentage points to that candidate’s ratings, at least.

Yet, when the results came in, Dr Nduom, the media’s favourite candidate, the man whose campaign style and image the youth were said to find most appealing, did worse than his party’s parliamentary candidates. Akufo-Addo at least outperformed his parliamentary candidates.

Larry Gibson's survey on an imaginary contest between Messrs Kufuor and Rawlings, where the question was who they would vote for if election were held between the two men in 2008, should tell us something. Larry said, quoting from Arthur K’s book, “Rawlings would win. He said that should tell us about how people on the streets saw things, compared to us.”

Yet, this was conducted at a time that the NPP knew President Kufuor was very popular and more so because of his superior social and economic record. NPP thought Rawlings was a negative influence on the NDC; so much so that even after Larry's disclosure, NPP's most popular ads on TV were about Mills being a potential lackey of Rawlings. Viewers liked it. But the bottom line: everything about Rawlings sells.

Larry Gibson initially indicated that NPP should write o?the Central and Greater Accra regions. When he personally went back to the coastal areas, the issues he was confronted with included lack of jobs, pair trawling and premix fuel. In short, the people had turned against the ruling party.

Arthur K, perhaps not furnished with details of all the polls conducted by Larry, confuses his readers by not indicating clearly which of the polls he was referring to because Larry's subsequent polls showed Nana and the NPP doing extremely better after just 3 months of nonstop, aggressive and comprehensive campaign.

Things had even presumably improved in the Central Region. Ben Ephson even added to that with his own poll which showed that NPP would increase its 16 seats in Central Region; yet with slightly reduced presidential votes. As it turned out, the presidential candidate did better than his parliamentary candidates in that region.

Hilda’s argument that Prof Mills was more popular than Nana in 2008 actually works against her preferred candidate. It adds to the argument that popularity is earned after some exposure on the national stage as a presidential candidate.

Nana Akufo-Addo, by 2008, had been one of the leading politicians of the Fourth Republic. He had been at the forefront for the best part of three decades since 1977. Yet, Mills, who'd been a Vice President before and was contesting for the top job for the third time in 8 years was more popular. For Nana to have caught up and overtaken Mills by December 7 was down to a combination of things, including the people’s faith in the NPP and the candidate’s own years of political mileage.

At least, with Mills’ superior popularity, Nana beat him on December 7 and lost by less than 41,000 votes three weeks later, after his party had lost its parliamentary majority. This means, the NPP needed less than a 20,300 swing of votes to have won in 2008. Hilda’s candidate is yet to be tested. He may well be more popular but the only way to find out is for him to be tested. That would be too chancy when his chances are analyzed by Ghana’s electoral trends.

But, with the NPP delegates to choose the next presidential candidate on Saturday (Aug 7) forming about 12% of Ghanaian voters, Nana, Alan, Isaac, Frimpong Boateng and Kodua has an opportunity to prove on such a massive sampling platform which of the five has the national appeal, popularity and acceptability to lead the NPP in 2008.

These 115,000 or so delegates are proportionately chosen from all the 21,000 or so polling stations across Ghana. They live with the people, eat with them, talk with them, listen to them and have a far more scientific appreciation and evidence of which of the candidates they can best sell than any of the five or their diehardists may be able to convince them on - this is the reality.

The delegates live on the ground. They interact daily with actual people on the ground and not some imaginary voters floating beyond reach of scientific discernment.

For Nana, he may continue to say ‘Je me suis fait coifer sur le poteu pour le poste.’

The author is the Executive Director of the Danquah Institute and was a campaign strategist for the NPP in 2008.