Thursday, 17 May 2012

Going by the Polls to the Vision Thing

Last Sunday’s second round of voting in the French Presidential election was an excellent example of electoral protocol at its best. Even before all the votes had been counted, Mr. Sarkozy, the incumbent had accepted defeat. He conceded not by issuing a statement; he called the winner, Francois Hollande personally to offer him his congratulations. Shortly thereafter, two rallies were organised in two places one mile apart at which the winner and the loser addressed their respective followers. Then they went home. End of story.

Please take note: unlike Ghana in our recent electoral history, there were no rampaging foot soldiers besieging the Electoral Commission, nor were there any bitter accusations of rigging, vote-buying or any shenanigans before, during and after the voting. This did not mean that the losers did not feel the bitter sting of defeat. Indeed, many at the Sarkozy post-election rally were in tears, and there is no love lost between the Left and the Right in French politics with many genuine points of disagreement defining them, of which more anon.

So why is there such a contrast between the manner in which say, the French conducted their last election and the way in which we do our election business, especially the ending bit? Here, even when the losing candidate concedes, it is done rather grudgingly with an ungracious statement that usually loosely means, “I know you stole the election but because I love peace and under pressure from my people, I am conceding defeat, but I will meet you in court!”

Mr. Sarkozy did not concede so graciously because he loves peace more than our lot do, nor did the French system work the way it did and does because of some innate superior civilization. It worked that way because of two words: OPINON POLLS. Opinion polls showed Mr. Sarkozy trailing his opponent for most of the past one year and he knew that his one serious chance to overtake Mr. Hollande or even close the gap evaporated when he failed to land the killer punch in the final live television debate which took place a few days before the vote.

In the West, opinion polls are a standard survey by which politicians, the media, businesses and civil society groups try to find out what a population segment feels about an issue or issues from a particular sample. Opinion polls are usually designed to represent the opinions of a sample population by conducting a series of questions and then using the answers to reflect how other people similar to the sample would respond.

Polling started in the US nearly two hundred years ago, and has now been refined into both an art form and a science. Its modern form can be traced to the latter years between the two World Wars. Elmo Roper, an American pioneer in political forecasting predicted the re-election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt three times – in 1936, 1940 and 1944. Gallup launched a subsidiary in the United Kingdom, where it almost alone correctly predicted victory for the Labour Party in the 1945 general election, in contrast with virtually all other commentators who expected a victory for the Conservative Party, led by Winston Churchill.

Polling is a very important part of the political and electoral process since it helps to guide candidates and electors as well as the government in making choices, including in the allocation of resources. In sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, polling is viewed suspiciously because it is often used as propaganda instead of a guide. In the West, newspapers hardly conduct polls themselves but commission polls from specialised agencies such as Harris, Gallup or YouGov since these organisations have the expertise and prestige to present credible polls.

In the French presidential election, the actual result and final polls were very close, but the reason why Sarkozy conceded so readily was that he had his own polls which would have told him that the game was up. All good political organisations in the West commission their own polls from credible organisations because they know that information from their own party agents can be tinged with exaggeration. Sarkozy would have known, despite putting a brave face on things, even before voting started that he had lost.

The Vision Thing

Another contrast between us and the French in electoral terms is that the latter knew the clear choices available to them. On issues such as immigration, the economy, banking reforms, unemployment and labour laws there is broad daylight between the Gaullists on the Right and the Socialists on the Left. There are parties at various degrees of extremes to the left and right of the mainstream and they all have their different policy prescriptions. But more critically, they offer different VISIONS of the future. Here, all political parties PROMISE to build schools, universities, clinics, hospitals and roads. That does not amount to a vision. Even the colonialists built schools, hospitals and roads although their vision for us was completely different from what we wished for ourselves.

It goes without saying that some questions are more difficult to ask than others, never mind answering them. For example, when you think about it, there are two important questions we need to ask about the coming presidential elections in December. The easier one is: Who are we voting for? The obvious answer is that we are voting for a president and we get a vice president thrown in for free, sort of. In all probability and barring any unforeseen gargantuan occurrence of seismic proportions, the next President of Ghana will be either Professor John Mills or Nana Akuffo Addo. So we know more or less who we are voting for; the candidates of the CPP, PNC, PPP and all other smaller parties and independent candidates can huff and puff all they want but the thing is a done deal.

The question we ought to ask is why we should vote for them, or even for the candidates of the smaller parties who are generously offering themselves. What we need is what former US President George Bush called “the vision thing”, that is what, and we have not had that from any candidate in clear terms. For example, take discipline; we are in a nation in which everyone does that which will bring immediate satisfaction to them. If it means tearing up a newly built road, or cutting copper cables from high tension connections, so be it. Everyone does what they like because no one is leading the line against indiscipline. Passers-by pass by as people do unspeakable things because there is no vision for us on which to draw inspiration.

You can build schools without providing education; you can build hospitals without providing health; however you cannot develop a nation without a vision and looking for this vision should be the principal task of any people as they are called upon to elect a leader. Much of the talk from our politicians, especially of the NDC and NPP variety is: vote for me because I am not the other one. Ghanaians should take a leaf from the people in a village on the road between Atimpoku and Ho who every four years mount a road sign saying: NO TOILET NO VOTE. We should say simply, NO VISION NO VOTE.

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