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The need to recalibrate campaigns' strategies

By Paul T. Shipale
At its 'Editor's corner', the Namibian Sun newspaper of Friday October 5, 2012 carried an article titled; 'Let the presidential hopefuls debate', calling for SWAPO party's nominees for the coveted slot of the Vice President of the Party to 'tell (the) people their opinions on matters and reveal what they will do as president' as well as explain what they see as the key challenges for the country at this time, among others.

This call was also echoed by the Namibian English daily's former editor's Ms. Gwen Lister in her weekly column 'Political Perspective', when she pointed out that 'considerations should be made for what individuals stand for and what their policy differences might be. Ms Gwen Lister further elaborated that the 'candidate controversies', referring to disputes and infighting focusing on leadership rather than on differences about platform, 'would be better served if the discussions were lively around any possible policy differences or emphasis among them' and then advocated for what she described as 'a much more informed debate of issues and priorities' that can promote good governance both at partypolitical as well as national level.

These calls, I am pretty sure, are based on what is happening elsewhere, especially the last presidential debate in the USA between President Barack Obama and his challenger the Republican Governor Mitt Romney.

Indeed, in the presidential elections in the United States, it has become customary for the main candidates of the two largest parties, currently the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, to engage in a debate. The first general election presidential televised debate was held on September 26, 1960, between U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, in Chicago. It was not until 1976 that a second series of televised presidential debates was held during the general election campaign season when on September 23, 1976, Democratic candidate, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, and the Republican incumbent, President Gerald Ford, agreed to three debates (one on domestic issues, one on foreign policy, and one on any topic) on television before studio audiences. A single vicepresidential debate was also held that year just like the one Obama and Romney vice presidential running mates, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, will have on foreign policy this week.

The question is; In our political context, should the candidates for the coveted slot of Vice President of the SWAPO Party at its next congress have a presidential debate à la American style and so far, what are their communication and campaign strategies, if any?

We shouldn't forget that ours is a party-based electoral system and campaigns rather have a party-centric view and don't necessarily focus on the individual politician but the party as a whole in comparison to candidate-centered electoral systems such as the US, where campaigns are highly individualized.

In this regard, as candidates are elected based on a party manifesto in Namibia, one wonders who among the three candidates should claim ownership of the Party Manifesto, if it is a shared document belonging to all three candidates? We should bear in mind that in an inner-party election what counts are the potential voters to the Party's Electoral College and what the candidates need is to position themselves by informing the voters about their achievements, their political competences and their leadership abilities and above all about their vision for the future and what issues are most important to the party such as its cohesion and unity. After all, who ever will emerge as the winner will still need everyone to campaign for him or her to win the national elections. That is to say, we shouldn't expect a USA's type of debate to happen here. Nevertheless, there is a need for candidates to recalibrate their communication strategies on issue-oriented appeals.

Moving from the assumption and premises that People will follow a person who inspires them, a transformational leader with conviction politics and passion can achieve great things by injecting enthusiasm and energy with the development of a vision and a view of the future that will excite and convert potential followers.

Such a transformational leader thus takes every opportunity and will use whatever works to convince others to climb on board the bandwagon. In parallel with the selling activity, a transformational leader should show the way forward because without a clear vision and orientation, anyone can hire people to the highest bidder of those who continue to see Africa through the prism of ignorance and obfuscation with their empty glib talk as masters of disguise in ethnic sectionalism, which defines the interests of ethnicity above wider interests.

This is a phenomenon in which favour and preference tends to be advised by largely ethnic considerations. So that, whereas more open and relevant criteria should guide the selection of people in an open and fair basis, ethnic allegiances become overriding factors in the selection of people for office or options in policymaking and implementation by rival elites employing ethnic sentiments as mobilizing instruments to gain power and access to resource management. Unfortunately, the country is not on some tribal market to be sold to the highest bidder as Mr. Mubita wrote the other day.

It seems the old divisive talks of 'western and eastern owambo' are rearing their ugly heads again for the coveted seat with talks of 'our time will come', and now the rumours that were doing the rounds that some groups were promised the seat of Premiership, probably a female, if they support certain candidates to make a unified front against others to retain power at whatever cost are not far-fetched, judging from the recent developments including the nominations, which make people to be suspicious of the behind the scene deals and 'night shift politics' with some criss-crossing the country 'to win the hearts and minds' while at the same time making people to believe that they are not campaigning or are not available.

Is not long ago when some vowed that others should not think that they were smart and that they will make sure others regret their decision. With talks of certain groups making a unified front against others simply because they are suspicious of them, it is wise and prudent to shelve the idea of a debate and perhaps postpone it until the national elections and instead sharpen and recalibrate our campaign strategies.

As for the second part of the question, in a Paper prepared for presentation at the University of Iceland, in Reykjavik, on 25-27 August 2011, Uta Russmann examined political party's press releases and media articles to identify and explore the use of negative and positive messaging strategies from a political actor's perspective. By positive campaigning we mean when one is talking about the positions, qualifications, accomplishments, and campaign tactics of the opposing parties or candidates in a positive way. In general, authors define a positive appeal as a message that is talking about the party's or candidate's own success, (Lau and Pomper 2001; Djupe and Peterson 2002).

Theoretical framework; Even though only a handful of studies to date have investigated the effects of negative campaigning on voters' attitudes in the context of national election campaigns across European countries, the recent literature on negative campaigning has shown that political parties in Western Democracies have increasingly employed negative campaign tactics to win the elections. Even though existing literature that empirically measures negative and/or positive campaigning in political press releases is scarce (Haynes et al. 2006), Wicks and Souley studies report that threequarters of the press releases contained an attack on the opponent (Wicks and Souley 2003).

Following previous research, the study distinguishes the following types of negative and positive messages: a) issue appeals, b) appeals on the opponent's record, c) personal appeals and statements on a party's or politician's qualification for the job, and d) appeals on the campaign tactic and campaign strategy of the opponent. ( Fridkin and Kenney 2004; Haynes et al. 2006; Walter and Vliegenthart 2010; Wicks and Souley 2003). Issue-oriented appeals focus on the policy views of the opponent while appeals on the opponent's record refer to the opponent's job performance and achievements or record.

Both appeals are considered to concern 'hard skills' (e.g. data, facts and figures) as opposed to 'soft skills' defined as those appeals that focus on individual characteristics and portray an opponent's personal history and character traits (e.g. integrity and charisma) as well as statements on the qualifications for the job, which focus on the opponent's competence, experience and leadership abilities.

Another very important contextual factor that influences campaign strategies is proximity to Election Day (Damore 2002: 672). Findings based on party-controlled communication channels other than press releases and newspaper articles show that the closer the Election Day the more likely candidates and parties are going negative (Damore 2002; Elmelund-Præstekær 2011: 9; Peterson and Djupe 2005: 50- 1). This is probably due to the fact that most voters tend to tune in the campaign rather late and political parties and candidates want to catch their attention. In addition, it is presumed that political parties and candidates are 'waiting to go negative until after they have established themselves in the minds of voters', because then they 'may be perceived as more reliable, which may increase the veracity of their attacks'.

Therefore, at the beginning of the campaign a key goal of the parties and candidates is to position themselves by informing the voters about their achievements, their political competences and their leadership abilities and about what issues are most important to the party. Conversely, such an argument may assume that the level of positive campaigning will decrease as the Election Day nears. The other day I was reading the column of Mondli Makhanya of the South African weekly newspaper; the Southern Times, in which he was talking about how the most intense scrutiny of Obama failed to turn up dirt.

Makhanya further elaborated saying that in America, the security agencies do a sort of risk profile assessment on all freshmen senators and congressmen. A process intended to assess the vulnerability of the public representatives to blackmail. So they establish your relationship with money, your gambling habits, tax history, and so on. According to Makhanya again, with most people they will find a misdemeanour here and there and colourful private life here and there but on Obama they could find nothing that had not already been revealed in his book, so they were not able to dig up any dirt to use in the mudslinging hurlyburly of US electoral politics of discrediting the rival candidates as he had no speck of dust on him.

The best they could dig up was a tenuous link with a radical cleric, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and an inconsequential hippie resistance movement. Lately the worst that the hateful right wing could do was to place question marks over Obama's place of birth while others nonchalantly bumble along confidently even with their re-confirmed corruptibility and immense ineptitude including an incredible ability to attract scandals like vermin to a dump site.

I just hope that as a country we will not descent that route or resort to negative campaigning as some tried to do at the beginning to the mid of 2000s. We are building a nation and the issue here is about the Unity of the Party and One Nation and not which group should outsmart the other to snatch power at whatever cost.

Therefore the focus should be on reconciliation and peace and not retribution, condemnations, the retrogressive tendencies of ethnicity, tribalism, regionalism, racism and all other evils. In short, let our candidates avoid the negative campaigning and profiling of individuals.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen


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