By Tapiwa Gomo
IT is less than 24 months before the next elections in 2023 and political parties are slowly zooming into campaign mode. The recently concluded elections in Zambia have triggered the possibility of opposition parties winning against the ruling party and the sitting president peacefully handing over power. What should be a normal way of doing political business is seen as a miracle because leaders in Africa are not known for doing so.
That is not the objective of today’s instalment but to tackle how political campaigns have evolved over the years and how powerful politicians are manipulating the rules of the game. In short, the issue of vote buying requires further discussion.
A political campaign is an organised effort which seeks to influence the decision-making process among voters. Traditionally, this is done by selling policy ideas on how candidates intend to improve the lives of the majority, socially, economically and politically.
This means that voters are expected to elect their future leaders based on a long-term perspective of their policies.
Here lies the conundrum. Candidates approach elections by influencing the electorate to vote for them.
Their ultimate goal is to win the elections, and sometimes by all means possible.
On the other hand, the electorate approach the elections with a view to voting for the right leader for the next term of office.
For the electorate, it is a gamble whose impact it will have to endure and live with for the entire next term of office, while for the candidate the joyride begins soon after winning elections.
These dynamics are critical in understanding how elections have evolved in Africa and other parts of the world.
First, there is no guarantee that an elected leader will perform to the extent expected to benefit of everyone. And this lack of clarity has become fertile ground for vote-buying or what others call pay-now and get-your-vote-later.
Instead of seeking to influence voters through campaign messages, they trade goods and assets for votes. While this is considered unfair practice or voter fraud in some countries, it is increasingly widespread with advanced approaches being used to implement it.
On a cost benefit argument, if public office gives access to more financial opportunities, why not invest in vote-buying now and reap the benefits later? That is what some politicians say.
There was an outcry within some opposition quarters recently over the issuance of cars by the government to chiefs, Political Actors Dialogue principals and State institutions such as the Zimbabwe Republic Police and others.
The gripe emanates from various concerns among which include how the government is prioritising its beneficiaries and that these vehicles will be used for political purposes.
On the other hand, the ruling party argues that it has a responsibility to improve the situation in the country. For it, at least, the public message is along development lines for which it is not easy to fault it.
It is the governing party even though these efforts are seen as the beginning of the its campaign.
Assuming the opposition argument is correct, it means that the ruling party already has an edge over the opposition by ensuring that chiefs — the opinion leaders and gatekeepers mainly in the rural areas — can start campaigning for it.
These days cars are perishables most of whose warranty last for just five years. So, a chief can use their current car to campaign for the next.
The vote-buying practice is not limited to cars but extends to other private goods such as cash and gifts for electoral support or higher turnout on election day. Studies have shown that nearly 20% of voters in sub-Saharan Africa are offered electoral handouts directly or indirectly in exchange for their vote in the previous elections. While this is not good for good governance and democracy, voters are fatigued by unfulfilled promises hence they would rather cash-in on their votes before elections.
For politicians that have used the 20% vote-buying model, they target those who occupy influential positions in society such as community leaders, religious leaders, celebrities, social media influencers, senior civil servants and anyone who occupies an opinion leader position.
This is because it is expensive to “buy” every voter and that most followers tend to be loyal to their leaders or influencers. Most of the followers believe what their leaders or influencers say, thus enabling their leaders to deliver them as voters to politicians on a silver platter on election day.
To recipients of gifts-for-votes, this may seem to be a fair deal but in actual fact, it is mortgaging the future of the country.
More specifically, gifts-for-votes, are known to reduce accountability for leaders while compromising the ability for voters to elect a leader based on their interests.
Most corrupt practices by public office holders are linked to vote-buying. Politicians will need to recover what they spent during election campaigns while amassing more for future election campaigns.
The only way they can effectively do so is to steal from public coffers thereby weakening government’s ability to deliver services to the people. Vote-buying and its attendant corrupt practices are among the reasons political power tends to be concentrated in the hands of the political elite enabling them to overstay in office.
This is in addition to creating a docile voter who survives on praise singing to power while intellectually unable to challenge or hold government to account.
In this sense, the distribution of electoral gifts may unreasonably affect the poorest by denying them a voice in the development of policies that affect them, rendering them powerless.
- Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.