Monday, March 13, 2006
Do Manifestos mean anything to the Electorate?
Since the dawn of democracy, there has been an increasing emphasis on detailing the parameters of policies and programs to benefit global electorate- societies. Historically, politics was limited to power brokers and financiers who sponsored candidates or political Parties and for the most part, citizens did not really account for anything much, except for being circumscribed as symbolic statistics. At Election time, `Citizen Public’ was only as important as his/her vote could attest or allow, after which it was business as usual. In modern times this attitude has changed somewhat, although there are instances where the former situation persists.
According to one commentator, “What the 21st century has brought, though, is an astonishing array of alternative, quasi-alternative, and quasi-establishment Manifestos, platforms, agendas, position papers, values statements, declarations of corporate social responsibility, etc. Many contain proposals that any great radical middle manifesto could hardly do without.”
However, we live in different times and even when the masses may appear misguided; they should not be underestimated, particularly when they now have access to new knowledge and communications technology. Events in North America, the Middle East and the Asian peninsula are indicative of how technology has shaped the thinking of large populations in nation states in emerging democracies.
In these times, quite rightly, political Parties of all descriptions are tested for their durability to deliver on promises made to supporters and eligible voters alike. It is important that Political Manifestos are seen not only as instruments of or for electioneering, but as credible efforts towards ensuring that citizens have the opportunity to affect changes to societies’ general well-being. In a previous article, we stressed the importance of recognizing the value of citizens’ aspirations, needs and general expectations in the democratic scheme of things.
Significance of Manifestos
So, what is the real significance of Political Manifestos if the average citizen feels powerless and disadvantaged by the system? What difference can they make to modern political cultures? Is there any real value to be gained from them and how reasonably beneficial are they to a confused electorate? What ingredients should they embody?
There are several schools of thought on this issue, but a major wrestling point is, the Politician versus the Citizen, both of whom are critical to the equation of change. One is expected to deliver on `promises’ whether real or imagined, while the other is expected to respond positively by ticking the right box on Election Day. So you have in reality, a mirrored perception and a marked symbolism which again, carries the weight of expectation with respect to the rivalry of political candidates and the decisive outcome of voters who in effect, always have the final say in this electoral tussle.
Therefore, how can political Parties communicate their message in an atmosphere of doubt and indecision? How can voters respond to political candidates whose ideology is unresponsive, let alone, inconsistent, with the norms of civilized society? The answer lies in our original view that politicians and the electorate share much in common –for one thing, they are part of whole societies and do have, in spite of differences, shared expectations. Suppose on Election Day there is a low voter-turnout, there is bound to be concerns expressed by political Parties and constituents alike. They might both feel terribly disenfranchised by a system that they believe and share, even when it comes to the spoils. The system might be flawless but voters may think otherwise and their resultant actions could reflect volumes of the actual political system versus the harsh realties on the ground.
In traditional liberal democracies where politics is a highly competitive affair and where it is practically `open season’ for politicians, Parties contest for a range of `product mixes’ such as content, emotions, guarantees, presentation and style. Messages are channeled through different communications media, including live debates, where policy issues are discussed. Of note, some politicians are so cavalier that they take the electorate for granted by appealing more to `veneer politics’ (artificial view of reality) rather than `content analysis politics’.
It is the responsibility of every political Party, through its leadership, to `sell’ effectively, its political, economic and social `products’ and maintain a line of consistency throughout election campaigns. Deviation from the norm should be fully explained and an alternative should be presented to clear all reasonable doubt. Is this really possible in a game where the rules are broken by default – when candidates, in an effort to score cheap political points, become embroiled with personality politics? Here is where the process of electioneering can lose its moral compass and the Manifesto could be perceived an expedient empty slogan.
Quite understandably, the season of elections is demonstrably passionate and beliefs are usually misjudged by a predication of past mistakes and what the electorate may judge in the form of a question - `should we vote for the lesser of the two evils? Yet, citizens do deserve better than Parties indulging in a contest of historic bashing and ideological sloganeering. If indeed, a Manifesto represents a sales document and a marketing tool for political Parties to advocate real policy change, then its authors should reflect a high level of professionalism in the promotion and endorsement of this document, bearing in mind, the underlying message it contains for all voters.
In addition, the success or failure of a Manifesto depends largely on the method used to convince the electorate and or any other justification that citizens may have for not responding affirmatively to what the Manifesto seeks to promote. Here are a few suggested techniques that might be useful to the publication and dissemination of Political Manifestos to a modern, enlightened and sophisticated electorate.
· Firstly, the Party in question should assemble a group of policy experts on key disciplines to discuss with the hierarchy, polices to be crafted. There should be a pre-examination of all experts not necessarily to determine their ideological or political `purity’, but to gauge their interest towards the development ethos. Each expert should state what he/she can bring to the table by way of policy knowledge and experience based on the Party’s mission.
· Secondly, having ensured that the history of the Party is clearly defined, a Statement of Principles should be formulated reflecting the hopes and aspirations of Parties and the electorate – collective or consensus views tend to appeal to voters, especially the undecided or the floating ones. Such statement should reflect the underlying philosophy of Parties’ role as functional democratic entities and should set a clear timeframe of governance with an explanation of partnership working all-round. For instance, a Statement of Principles Statement may thus read:
`The………Party will govern the country over the next Parliament within a sustainable democratic framework, by working in partnership with a variety of public institutions, private agencies and civic organizations, to improve the quality of life and general well-being of citizens irrespective of their class, education, ethnicity, religion and any other persuasion’.
· Thirdly, there must be clear objectives set out in the Manifesto since these will show the serious intention of the Party in question. Effectively, aims and objectives are integral to the target portfolios of political Parties and thus setting clear objectives is vital to communicating a message that is unambiguous, non-partisan and not patronizing either. Above all, objectives should be reachable, realistic and targetable and if they are dubious, the integrity of the Party could be brought into disrepute. Parties contesting elections may enshrine in their Manifestos the need to modernize the security forces; strengthen ties with allies and use diplomacy to resolve protracted conflicts; encourage and stimulate political and economic freedom in remote areas of the country; and to promote responsibility for citizens to play a unique role in world peace and stable co-existence.
· Fourthly, after brainstorming existing policies and evaluating their performance levels vis-à-vis future projections, the Manifesto should present detailed policies and programmes with specific timeframes for implementation. These should be supported by credible information and data, and tested to verify accuracy and consistency, since future policies would be scrutinized by opposing Parties and the electorate as a whole.
· Fifthly, apart from a well-presented Manifesto, it is the accessibility of it that is critical. If it is restricted to the Party faithful, as well as traditional supporters, this situation could have adverse effects on general voters’ decision on Election Day, a symptom that could be mistaken for `voter apathy’. In all of this, political education is important - voters knowledge or lack of knowledge on key issues - should not be seen as a political license to treat citizens with contempt since this can have fatal consequences as experience suggests worldwide.
While it is true that on their own, elections are not always proof of the observance of liberal values cum meaningful democratic change, it is vital that those who are aspiring to govern respect the aspirations, expectations and wishes of citizens. In any event, Manifestos are the basis for initially, setting out policy frameworks and testing their outcome via the ballet box. Their ultimate success depends on the response by the electorate in view. To their credit, politicians remain the essential link between the system of government (the rulers) and the public (the ruled), and for what it is worth, they should endeavour to maintain a deep sense of propriety in the theatre of politics to solidify the entire system of democratic governance, as it should be.
© Christopher A. Johnson, March 2006