The USA goes to the polls
The year 2012 is getting to a climax ending. For the United States of America (USA), this also brings with it an intriguing election.
This is an election that not only interests the American world but the rest of the globe. Inevitably, what happens in USA affects more than America, extending to the rest of the world.
Like many, I have taken a keen interest in this election. There have been many before this but the last in 2008 and this year’s take on a different dimension of sorts. Not because I foresee any direct benefit as a Zambian rooted in the heart of Africa. I suppose it is mainly because of the way events in the US open my eyes and mind to what my beloved nation can learn.
Most times when we seek to contrast where we are with a reference point more advanced, we are tempted to conclude we are too far off to emulate. I am not one though to subscribe to that school of thought. Even the most advanced or sophisticated nations or people started off somewhere.
It is with that in mind and from that perspective that I list below some important insights Zambia can pick from the US elections as we strive to steer our nation on the path of progress.
1. Awareness of voters- It is evident that Americans take an active interest in what their leaders and government are doing. This is seen as campaigns have progressed and potential voters interviewed to assess the performance of Barack Obama or the presentations of his opponent Mitt Romney.
While it may be that some will vote on the basis of prejudice or deeply set preferences, it cannot be doubted too that a significant portion at least have an opinion on what they want, what has not worked and what matters based on logical rationale.
Way forward for Zambia: Literacy is a priority. The people must be aware and must be tutored enough to read, analyse and know what is happening in their environment.
As things stand, we have citizens swayed by the pangs of poverty accepting opaque beer, chitenges or a bag of mealie meal for their vote.
We see even some literate ones that do not read or independently analyse their environment. This has the potential of giving ground to editorial, political or speculative manipulation.
2. Information is power- To be where people know and dissect the calibre of their candidates or government, information must be readily available and accessible. Through various channels, civil society, think tanks and the media, this to a large extent has been achieved in the US.
Coupled with literacy, access to information becomes fundamental in having an enlightened citizenry that know what progress and development looks like.
Way forward for Zambia: As above, our country must ensure we are rich in history, information dissemination and independence in the expression of thought. Further to this, there must be support for institutions and bodies that can offer objective research, analysis and release of critical information that would aid in assessing governance, government performance and leadership accountability.
3.Policy and plan clarity- Both the Republican and Democratic sides have spent time and resources explaining their plans to the electorate. This has been the basis for convincing voters why they ought to be elected.
The bashing that has gone on between the candidates involves their respective positions on various issues ranging from foreign policy, gay rights, security to unemployment. This is done with clarity and even when they digress, somehow they are swung back to tackle their plans and intentions should they be swept into office.
Way forward for Zambia: Our leaders and political parties must mature into such a bracket. It is high time we started witnessing meaningful campaigns and progressive messages. In the 21st century, we must move away from name calling, wild allegations, petty arguments and hollow stage pronouncements. Instead we must be wooed by elaborate plans, proposed policies or evidence of achievement.
4. Professional and mature engagement- While differences may have appeared during the US campaigns, they have largely been based on principle, ideology and policy as articulated by both candidates.
The three Presidential debates are testimony of this. The presidential candidates and their running mates shared a platform to state their thoughts before in-house and TV audiences. The structured debates were themed around specific topics and the candidates exchanged their views passionately.
But what is noteworthy is seeing Obama and Romney appear at the traditional Al Smith fundraising dinner days later, in humorous mood with jokes characterising the evening. I was left yearning for a time we would see President Sata, Hakainde Hichilema and Nevers Mumba on the same stage, sharing their plans and thoughts.
Way forward for Zambia: We need to challenge ourselves to aspire for such a level of engagement. A time when our candidates can come together and maturely outline their plans as leaders, not dignified party cadres.
This is a challenge that falls squarely on the shoulders of civil society, the church, politicians and we the ordinary citizens to push for this maturity and organisation.
5. Elaborate planning and logistics- Everything to do with the US election is well laid out and known. The elections are comprehensively planned, dates known for each cycle, each of the states pursue their candidate selection process seamlessly etc.
This organisation goes down to the last letter and is testimony of the seriousness attached to the entire process end to end.
Way forward for Zambia: We must continue pushing to invest in our electoral process. This involves, among many other things, the election dates being constitutionally enshrined, the electoral body professionally run and empowered to manage transparent elections and the rules of the game fairly applied for all parties.
6. Let the Constitution reign- The US constitution spells out the date of such elections and which offices are due for a vote. There is no debate there, it is well known to all.
Similarly we observe this Constitutional clarity in spelling out that such an election will be held in four year cycles on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Additionally, it is explicit that even though election results are known within 48hrs, the inauguration is slated for January 20th the following year.
Way forward for Zambia: When it comes to important things such as the Constitution, our sights must be set on future generations. It is posterity we are called to serve and thus if we happen to land in such privileged roles, selfish interests must be subordinated at all costs.
Close to half a century after political independence, Zambia still discusses a people driven constitution. Leaders have taken office with a firm promise to deliver on this. Alas, we are still discussing it.
7. National pride and patriotism- There is an unmistakeable pride in the nation when we observe the Americans including their Presidential candidates. Perhaps it comes with having achieved something notable or being powerful. It could well be but is there a law that prohibits one to be proud of their roots, history and status? None at all.
It therefore remains for a nation to stand together and be identified with their heritage. That is a start for so many things a nation can aspire for and achieve.
It is inspiring to hear the candidates invoke God to bless America or how they are doing something for “this great nation”.
Way forward for Zambia: . There are times when a nation must stand tall together. Times when we can choose to cherish our unity, peace and diversity. Times when things like our Independence day must be a reminder of our proud history and sacrifice bringing together leaders and citizens across the political divide.
Unfortunately, we have continued with the thoughtless snubbing of Independence celebrations and the significant politicisation of such an event as ruling party cadres take centre stage. Successive opposition leaders including our incumbent Head of state, former presidents and partisan CSOs have all in the recent past shunned such national events.
8. Transparency- This year’s election has been confirmed to be the US’s most expensive in the nation’s history. A staggering $4.2bn has been raised by both parties as at 4th November.
The overriding lesson here is the transparency and accountability that has come with this amount of money. Each of the two camps have consistently declared the monies raised, an indication that even the source is comprehensively scrutinised.
This is a cardinal requirement to mitigate the risk of a nation being hijacked by players with ill intention and self serving ulterior motives.
Way forward for Zambia: The last elections in 2011 provide an insight into this gap in Zambia. There was controversy regarding the then ruling party’s exorbitant campaign while the then opposition also went on the campaign trail on a chartered chopper etc. What the nation was not privileged to know is who the financiers were or how much monies were raised to finance the respective campaigns.
Zambia and Africa in general seem largely exposed to questionable funding to usher political leaders into office. It therefore highlights the imperative urgency to put in place structures that stimulate high levels of accountability. This may seem far fetched now but we must get there.
9. It can get dirty, personal and also go wrong- Let us make no mistake, not all has been rosy. The fierce run up to the US election has brought to the fore some heated exchanges between the candidates.
Obama’s birth has been questioned while Romney it has been alleged was not paying taxes. CNN recently aired some catch phrases from the campaigns. Obama coined the term “Romnesia” referring to his opponent’s inability to recall anything negative attributed to him. Similarly, Romney mentioned how USA needed change beyond speeches, an apparent sarcastic reference to Obama’s eloquence.
On the actual election day, there were some reports of long queues and machines not working in some areas. Such logistical hiccups give a dose of reality where such enormous events have to be put together.
Way forward for Zambia: The fact that there has been name calling and some negative taunts during the US campaigns can offer dual insight.
Firstly, some of the things we experience in our national politics may just be normal. Secondly, there must be a limit to the negativity and an explicit focus on the bigger issues.
We have seen from the US campaigns that even with all the punches thrown at each other, the candidates were forced by the stage, audience and stakeholders to discuss critical issues in relation to their plans. They therefore did not have the luxury of character assassination or demeaning exchanges about individual looks.
That for Zambian politicians simply means it is time to grow up.
10. Do your job- The way Obama has been put on the spot over the last four years speaks volumes. His performance has been closely scrutinised from all angles whether prejudicial or objective, economic or political, domestic or foreign.
In response, what he has had to put on the table is evidence of achievement beyond political rhetoric.
This is an ever present challenge to leaders to focus on delivering and doing their job while in office. The only language that is likely to resonate well with the electorate will be pinned on performance and not promissory notes. A leader is held accountable and assessed through the lenses of delivery on pledges made.
Way forward for Zambia: We must move away from the use of development as a bait or reward for voting for particular candidates or political parties. Often we have heard leaders unashamedly tell voters that they will wallow in under development if they elected any candidate or party other than their own.
The lesson to pick from the USA is that the presidential candidates have at all times articulated plans for the American people, not Democrats or Republicans.
We must step away from deeply partisan agendas that ostracize innocent citizens on the basis of political affiliation or association.
The final analysis
Evidently, we are paces off the level seen in the US. This in no way suggests that progress is an impossible feat.
We must strive to improve where we lack, learn from those that have made strides and change or effectively eliminate what is not adding value.
As the US ushers in either the same President for another term or a new President, it should not end there for Zambia. There are lessons to be picked which will prove instrumental in our quest for progress.
Is it possible? Yes it is. It depends entirely on our collective societal and political will.