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Opinions of Sunday, 3 April 2016


Why I lost the primaries. All politics is indeed local

Every now and then, one comes across highly educated persons or candidates whose credentials are only surpassed by their opinions, but who cannot, for life, understand why they lose the vote of the masses that they only seek to help.

Bristling with overconfidence and overcome by the brilliance of their own ideas, they never consider the possibility of losing and in the event of their eventual miserable loss to ‘far lesser mortals’, often have no clue what really struck them. In such moments, the phrase –all politics is local—widely attributed to Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the US House, becomes relevant.

When Ghanaian politicians or their supporters talk about issues that should determine voting patterns, whose issues do they refer to? Do they mean the things that they, in the comfort of their rooms, have determined to be critical for national development or are they listening to the voice of the community to better appreciate local concerns and tailor their messages? Why do people vote the way they do?

Losing primaries

To find some answers to these questions, I recently had the privilege of interviewing a parliamentary aspirant of a major political party in Ghana who, for the purposes of this feature, shall be called Honourable. Honourable has lost two previous primaries in his quest to go to Parliament; first in 2011 and second in 2015. In 2011, he came second out of three candidates, while coming up a distant sixth out of eight candidates in 2015.

In both instances, Honourable was fairly certain he had the best ideas. Trained in expensive foreign universities, burning with revolutionary zeal for transformational development and seeing massive opportunities to turn raw poverty into matchless wealth, he concluded that winning was a matter of course. In both instances, the electorate led him on. On both occasions, he felt greatly surprised to lose, especially when he felt so “strong on the issues.”

To what extent did his ideas influence the electoral decisions? I asked Honourable.

“Ideas did not matter. I wanted to dredge the lagoon. I had programmes to improve upon their agricultural yield and plans to introduce solar water pumps, thereby reducing electricity costs. I wanted to work with development agents to provide a ready market for their mat-weaving activities … and a host of others.”

Determinants of voting patterns

Honourable described the first factor as one of “people wanting their kind.” Explaining further, he pointed out how electoral choices were often not a matter of matching curriculum vitae to job specifications. People may prefer, say, a local teacher working with the local government to some big shot lawyer from the city they have no relationship with. The key then is to develop a genuine relationship with the electorate founded on trust and mutual respect.

Related somewhat to the first, Honourable described the second factor as a certain ability to develop and critically nurture an extensive local network with community opinion leaders – chiefs, assembly members, municipal authorities and delegates among others. These opinion leaders often have massive influence with the ability to sway votes in one direction or another irrespective of the grand person specifications of an eventual losing candidate.

The third determinant of voting choices had its roots in extreme poverty of the electorate complicated by repeated cycles of disappointment from politicians who failed to fulfil previous promises. The electorate, in essence, appeared to have lost faith in the democratic process and, therefore, demanded their rewards immediately.

“One chief asked me for chairs and bowls for the schoolchildren. Two hours to voting, a woman was holding her voting slip in her hand and publicly announced that she was going to vote but was waiting for me to bring her money before she would actually cast her vote.” In reality, therefore, irrespective of the insignificant role of parliamentarians or legislators in setting and pursuing the local development agenda, it has become extremely challenging to pursue a path to Parliament without significantly spending on projects such as asphalting roads, providing electricity poles, purchasing furniture for schoolchildren, and contributing to school feeding through the purchase of bowls etc.

I was struck by the items listed by Honourable. Three key determinants of voting patterns and no mention of what folks like to romanticise as “the issues” – defined, inter alia, as ‘expanding the tax net, mechanising agriculture, reducing inflation, reducing debt to GDP ratio, moving from raw materials to a manufacturing base, improving pass rate, increasing the life expectancy, duration of senior high school etc.’ Concerned, the electorate may well be about these issues, but what appears important is how the candidate creatively situates these “high sounding issues” within the concrete daily realities of community members. In effect, therefore, the critical question becomes one of whether candidates speak to impress themselves about their own intelligence or aim to successfully communicate with the electorate by translating national economic policy to the retail level.

Lessons from losing

Honourable has come away with three key lessons from both defeats.

“One – our two major parties expanded the electoral base with the aim of eliminating vote buying. What they have actually done is to increase the number of people needing to be influenced by money. This is because we pay. In 2011, I paid GH¢100 each to over 500 delegates. By 2015 when the electoral base was expanded, we did what we had to do, but we realised we could not financially match other candidates and drew the line somewhere irrespective of the implications for us,” explained Honourable as he called on political parties to strengthen the enforcement of “ethical issues” in the campaign process.

Second, people need to be better educated on the role of the parliamentarian as a lawmaker and not necessarily the main agent of development. Routinely, Honourable was called upon to donate “50 plastic chairs, build roads, toilets and schools”. His attempt to distinguish between the roles of an MP and a local government official spelt his eventual doom. As the community put it, “If you can’t do it, others are already doing it.”

Third time lucky?

Honourable was emphatic in his answer to my question on whether or not he would give Parliament a third shot.

“I am done …. This democratic process is very expensive. When you want to be an MP, you spend so much, so when you get to Parliament, you have to pay your debt. No, no, no, this can’t be the way forward. Those who know how to do it are winning. I think I can achieve things outside the political process. I am done.”