In a society where poverty is acute, persistent and widespread, political parties find it difficult to amass definitive supporters. Only the elites remain “loyal” to specific candidates, and most times do so pursuing their personal and political interests. And we have seen even in recent times that some elites can be swayed when their egocentric self-interests are not satisfied to find new political homes to assure themselves greater leverage. The national interest ranks supreme.
No party should be deluded into thinking that all is done. No political party should be overconfident about winning the elections merely because of the numbers of potential voters that show up at its campaign rallies. Until the final votes are cast and the election results are announced, each candidate must create room for disappointment, which means exhausting every resource, optimizing every strategy and tactic, and most importantly, drawing the most dividend from every relationship to win the hearts and minds of the voters.
No political party has the election in its bag yet. Some parties may be better positioned than others, but they must not stop looking over their shoulders. Liberian electoral history is replete with situations where candidates were given assurances of winning the votes of specific constituencies and when the final curtains were closed, they were disappointed. Need exists for a rigorous campaign strategy that is empirically-based on an understanding of the Liberian voter. Candidates should also not forget the global tendency of how the populist wave has come to bring about huge surprises in electoral outcomes.
The Liberian political environment is immensely polarized. Voters are generally indifferent, hard to reach a decision on who to vote for and why they should vote for that candidate. Informal polls indicate a sort of election fatigue, manifested in part by the poor enthusiasm that was evident during the voter’s registration and the formal opening of the electoral campaign. Both did not draw spectacular participation although we do not have any definitive data on these events. We also lack data to confirm or deny how people feel about the current elections.
Nonetheless, people’s feelings can be placed on a continuum. 1) Those who are definite believers that the result of the presidential election is already decided and one particular party has it in its bag. That party awaits a coronation. They draw their cue from feeling that the opposition is yet to show that it is organized or coalesced around a cause. 2) Those who usually go far to say that the opposition is weak and will easily be defeated given that it is so dispersed.
Others believe that in this election cycle, it will be a misreading of the opposition given that partakers in the presidential elections have matured, rally monetary and other supports that have come to make them more competitive. What all these arguments boil down to is that there is likely going to be a second round. And the winning party will be the one that will begin to build allies across the opposition seeking to acquire promises or guarantees, however tepid, should they get involve in a second round.
The current election is between a ruling party that has a record and opposition parties headed by individuals who largely have little or no record of governance. The ruling party has governed for 12 years and created a “mixed” record if one uses the lens of the state of the nation that it inherited.
The opposition parties have not governed and thus not shown any capacity to take on the massive task of governing a war-ravaged, traumatized, capacity bereft, poverty-stricken society, which is still in its infancy relative to democracy. While some opposition leaders have had other roles, those cannot be compared to governing the state. The need for astute political leadership and obvious patriotic spirit cannot be overstated.
Those members of the electorate that will carry any political party to power will not be the political elites who are supporting the presidential candidates based on their vested interest, but rather the silent majority (undecided voters) who have experienced the blunt of underdevelopment and even war over Liberia’s existence.
The indifferent electorate is the one to watch and target for swaying toward one’s campaign. How each party will boost this segment of the electorate to turn out to vote will be the clinger. Messaging (clear, consistent, and persistent facts), which resonate with your targeted audience will be just as important. What differentiates a given party from the others must be clear.
The economic anxiety (fear and rage about widespread poverty and unemployment) on one side and the cultural anxiety (native power consciousness or the long-term control of power by non-indigenous elites) - not be overlooked in this electoral season. These two tendencies in the society are not beneath the candidate’s dignity to take seriously. Somewhere between these angsts, a whole host of other furies reside that have polarized the society.
They too need to be deciphered and given due attention and incorporated in their respective strategies during the ongoing campaign season. Who are the middle class, college educated Liberian voters going to vote for predominantly?
Who are the working class Liberian voters going to vote for predominantly? Who are the women voters going to choose as their candidate? Who will sway the youth vote? What will happen in the case of the ethnic-specific vote, which so many of the candidates have been courting? I call this the electorate comprehension gap, which plagues all the campaigns.
Clearly, none of the parties will be able to win these voters with a monolithic message – an appealing economic message or a cultural one that will be rooted in ethnic bigotry.
Each party will need to understand the real concerns, worries of the people relative to how the democratic landscape has changed. Why has the youth turnout within certain parties seemingly dropped? Why have women voters elected to disperse themselves across the political landscape?
It is simply not enough to conclude that you have these elections in the bag. There is no designate successor in the race. We cannot be entirely sure how these elections will turn out, but it behooves each party to become strategic, thoughtful, and search for empirical evidence to guide its campaign strategy. There are no rooms for premature mistakes in one’s campaign strategy.
Each campaign will need to find out the factors that will cause it to shed or lose support from particular segments of the electorate. Issues of trustworthiness will be raised in some quarters. Anyone who wants to win this election will have to have a targeted message, an win the hearts and minds of the Liberian electorate by campaigning hard in every village or hamlet in the 15 sub-divisions of Liberia.
But in the end, the election will be won on the basis of appealing the sensibilities of the voters that matter to them. Does religion have a strong presence in their lives? What factors and forces will endear the Liberian electorate to a particular candidate?
The “politics of the belly” and ethnic affiliation might override the other factors noted above. How will the candidate address tribal patronage, if they win? They must tell the voters.
True, the Liberian political landscape has changed, and paying special attention to those changes with the lens of a keen observer will be critical. Some have in the past come really close to winning the presidential elections and felt disappointed when the results have been announced.
A democracy is set apart from tyranny by how the people receive the final results of elections. The time has come for Liberians to show that our political system has been transformed from a one-party to a multi-party system, where political defeats will never be turned into violence.
Post-election violence should never be part of our democratic legacy. The role of the Liberian media will be critical during the campaign period. With media freedom now more pronounced than ever before, that should therefore be a catalyst for rigor in coverage. The citizenry will in the end depend on civil society organizations, like the media to enable a detached assessment of the underlying or root causes for the outcomes.
I remain hopeful. Reckless, class, ethnic, gender, religious, and other forms of posturing, I suspect will be used by some candidates. But the fact that this country needs a process of healing the rift between the elites and the working classes or people of various ethnic backgrounds so that class or ethnic conflict no longer dictates and distorts our politics, cannot be overstated. Liberians need such a healing to begin right now.
Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D., Contributing Writer