A lot of the chatter among the political class recently has focused on CCM’s refusal to take part in any public debates during this general election campaign. In The Citizen on Sunday this past weekend, Evarist Kagaruki writes:
CCM’s rejection of these debates calls into question its democratic credentials. The ignominious move by the party’s Secretary General Yusuf Makamba to bar all the party’s parliamentary candidates form taking part in the debates organised by the state broadcaster TBC1 (see Mwananchi of September 9, 2010) leaves a lot to be desired. It brings to the fore the grim fact that the grand party has not shed off some its old habits…reminiscent of those infamous rigid controls of the one-party dictatorship.’
Elsewhere, The Mikocheni Reporter is even more unsparing in her analysis:
It may be that this decision is based on CCM’s belief that it will win no matter what, that the opposition poses a negligible threat, and that voters are content to elect a party that does not respect their intellect. The implicit message is that CCM don’t have to work for our vote, they just assume we’ll give it to them. What a brave notion. Alternatively, the gag order is an act of sheer desperation. Maybe the Party believes that it will be used to mop the floor clean if it engages with the opposition and with voters in policy debates. If that’s the case, I would have to encourage the Party to gird its loins. Better prove to be a fool in public than give off the pungent odor of political cowardice.
While I agree with both Mr. Kagaruki and TMR on the larger point, the nontransparent nature of this approach, I am nevertheless going to offer an alternative perspective on what is happening here. I think it is very naive to believe that political parties anywhere think of elections in democratic terms. Yes, they may wax lyrical about the principles of openness and transparency but fundamentally they all want to win. Viewed in that context, CCM’s decision has nothing to do with them being undemocratic. Rather it is an act of political calculation that they believe will guarantee them a huge victory in October. And I am going to say something that goes against every bit of the new established orthodoxy: I think it is a brilliant piece of public relations strategy.
Let me explain why I believe that.
One of the most difficult things to do during political campaigns is to, first, establish a clear and coherent narrative about your agenda and second, to go out there and consistently articulate that narrative. All sorts of things can happen to throw you off course. From pesky reporters asking uncomfortable questions you want to avoid to opponents trying to score cheap political points off you, all this can unsettle a campaign’s imperative to control its message. And therein lies the the point: by foregoing the debates, CCM is essentially able to control what it says. Furthermore, President Kikwete is already the front-runner incumbent. Why should he elevate the stature of his opponents by engaging with them? (Ditto CCM parliamentary candidates). The power of incumbency allows him to command huge audiences at campaign rallies where he is able to talk to the electorate directly and on his own terms without the interruption and noise of his opponents. Up until now, he has risen above their ranting and raving (and if you’ve been watching any of the TBC1 parliamentary debates, this is exactly what has been happening) while projecting the gravitas of a President in complete control of his message. You can criticize this approach’s supposedly undemocratic connotation. But it is simplistic to suggest that it is borne out of incompetence or political cowardice. It is a strategy that is rooted in the desire to win.
(Photo: President Jakaya Kikwete speaking at a campaign rally in Kagera in August, 2010. By JakayaKikwete2010)