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‘Elimu Haina Mwisho’ Understanding the proper function of elections in a democracy

ONE of the late Mwalimu Nyerere’s ‘top priority’ governance projects during the early years of his leadership, was the liberation of Tanzanians from IGNORANCE, one of the four ‘enemies of the people’ against which he had declared total war.

And, in respect of the war against IGNORANCE, he gave first priority to Adult education; since the ‘elimination of illiteracy’ among adults was the greatest need at that time.

Thus, Mwalimu Nyerere repeatedly urged these adult citizens to always “aim higher”, by endeavouring to acquire more and more knowledge after they had completed the initial stage of knowing how to read and write; by telling them that “Elimu haina mwisho”.

Now, the whole of last week, starting from Monday 7th October and ending on Monday 14th (later extended to 17th) October, 2019; was the period during which Tanzanian citizens were urged to register themselves as voters in the forthcoming Local Government elections, which are due to be held countrywide on 24th November, 2019.

But, apparently, many people tended to take these elections for granted, thus, unfortunately, failing to grasp the full meaning of such elections; and, in particular, failing to understand the proper functions of elections in a democracy; which therefore made it necessary for the relevant Government Authorities, including President Magufuli himself, to intervene and undertake the task of urging the people to “turn out in large numbers to register themselves as voters”, in order that they may qualify for participation in these Local Authorities Elections.

This shows that there is a dire need for some more ‘adult education’ regarding the proper functions of elections in our society. Today’s article is a response to that particular need. It is a small contribution to the on-going commemorations marking the 20th anniversary of Mwalimu Nyerere’s death; because it is designed to “walk his talk” in respect of his “elimu haina mwisho” dictum.

The proper functions of elections In a democracy, the major functions of elections are the following: (a) to create a sentiment of popular participation and consent, in the choice of political leaders; and (b), to provide for the orderly succession in leadership positions, when the term of office of the incumbent leaders comes to an end.

Elections are universally regarded as the central feature of democracy; with the greatest emphasis being placed on the need to ensure that such elections are always free and fair. Generally speaking, elections were originally designed in order ‘to provide an opportunity for voters to choose their leaders’.

This opportunity includes the chance for voters to remove any unwanted leaders, or to renew the mandate of any good leaders; with the important exception that, in the case of Presidential elections, this ‘renewal of mandate’ option is currently limited constitutionally to only one such renewal .

But this restriction does not apply to any other leadership category. This opportunity to ‘remove any unwanted leaders ‘ is what explains the relatively large turnover of personnel at all other leadership levels (including Members of Parliament, and Members of the District or Urban local Councils), that is normally witnessed at every general election.

I should perhaps emphasize the point that this “removal from power”, or “renewal of mandate”, applies not only to the personnel involved.

It does, in fact, apply to both such personnel, and to their respective political parties. This means that the voters also have the opportunity for either removing from power any incumbent ruling political party; or renewing its mandate for another term of five years, entirely as they themselves may deem fit.

And again, this is what explains why Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) has remained in power for all these years after the reintroduction of multi-party politics in our country in 1992. It is simply because its mandate to remain in power has been regularly and continuously renewed, every five years.

The system of ‘governance by political parties’. The “ parliamentary system of governance”, such as that which is currently operating in Tanzania, is technically described as the system of “governance by political parties”, whereby the political party that wins the majority of the parliamentary seats, is the one that is given the right to form the Government of the day.

In that sense, political parties do constitute the essence of parliamentary democracy. It can, however, be rightly argued that this arrangement (of governance by political party), is not wholly satisfactory, for the following cogent reasons: (a) that large numbers of people who voted for the losing party or parties, will be governed by the party whose policies they probably disagree with; and (b) that many capable men and women who do not belong to any political party, can play no role whatsoever, in the governance of their country.

That could be considered to be the “negative side” of political parties. But there is also a brighter “positive side” of political parties, which is described in the paragraphs that follow below. The basic functions of political parties.

Such criticisms notwithstanding, political parties do have certain basic ‘positive’ functions to perform, which includes the following:- (i) They provide a stable base for the Government of the country; in the sense that the winning political party (which forms the Government of the day), will be implementing policies and programmes that have been endorsed by the electorate, which gave that particular party the majority of the votes cast.

(ii) They perform the “interest aggregation” function; in the sense that they are the organs that process the demands which are routinely made upon the political system, and convert them into policy decisions.

(iii) They provide a suitable, and convenient, forum for the participation of individual citizens in the political process; in the sense that political parties are the only social structures that are capable of involving large numbers of people in political action, on a sustained and controlled basis; so that, unless some particular interest of an individual is at stake, that individual does not have to engage himself personally in extensive and continuous articulation of his general interests, as these will be adequately safeguarded by his political party, with minimum personal involvement on his part.

This, in fact, is what accounts for the absolute centrality of political parties, particularly in the general public interests relating to the organization, and conduct, of elections.

And that, is also what explains why, in the context of Tanzanian law, political parties were given that definition which appears in the Political Parties Act (no. 5 of 1992), namely that : “Political party” means “any organized group which is formed for the purpose of forming the Government, or a local authority, within the United Republic through elections; or for putting up, or supporting candidates, to such elections”.

Thus, in view of that definition, the primary purpose, (or indeed the raison d’etre), of a ‘political party’ in Tanzania, is solely to participate in elections, with a view to winning the relevant election, and thus getting the right to form the Government at the national level, or forming the local Authority at the relevant level; or both.

Thus, any group which does not subscribe to these clearly articulated aims and objectives, does not qualify to be registered as a political party. Such group can only be registered under a different law, such as laws that provide for the registration of civil society organizations.

The mythical assumptions regarding political parties. Multi-party ideologists always claim that multi-partysm gives the voters the opportunity to listen to different policy options which are offered by different political parties during the campaign period preceding the relevant elections; and that this enables them to vote for the political party whose policy options appear to give them the greatest hope.

But in practice, in the circumstances of relatively poor countries like Tanzania, this is ‘easier said than done’. It is, at best, only a ‘mythical assumption’, largely based on derivative ideas borrowed from other jurisdictions, in which there are genuine, fundamental ideological differences between the policies of their respective political parties, such as those of capitalism vs socialism.

However, in the prevailing conditions of our poor countries, which are perversely confronted by the continued presence of the four ‘enemies of the people’ that were so declared by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere a long time ago, and listed as poverty, ignorance, disease, and corruption; the only viable policy option for any serious political party, is the ‘determination to wage a war against these enemies’.

And, therefore, obviously, there can be no fundamental differences between political parties regarding these issues. And that is what reduces the proposition of “listening to different policy options offered by different political parties and choosing the best among them”, to a lowly ‘mythical assumption’.

The positive roles of political parties in elections. There are three major roles to be played by political parties, in relation to elections. They are the following:- (a) candidate selection; (b) the organization and management of the election campaign for its candidates; and (c) the mobilization of votes for its candidates.

“Candidate selection” is, of course, the first most essential step in this whole process. For example, in some of the past general elections, particularly those of 2010 and 2015, the indiscriminate selection of candidates by CCM led to the downfall of its candidates in a number of constituents.

Thus, “ candidate selection” is a very serious business. With regard to the “ management of the election campaign”, we have already dismissed the false assumption that “each competing political party will put forward their policy options, and that the voters will rationally choose the option that gives them the greatest hope”.

Indeed, our accumulated experience in this regard, shows that the tendency for the majority of voters, is to assess the candidates individually, in order to determine which of them possesses the desired leadership qualities, specifically those of ability and integrity.

Because of that tendency, our election campaigns have become, in the vast majority of cases, entirely candidateoriented, instead of being political party- oriented. And finally, with regard to the third function of “mobilizing votes for the party’s candidates”, (or the “catchthe- votes strategy)”; Basically, there are three distinct categories of voters:- (a) those who strongly support the party; (b) those who strongly oppose it; and (c) the undecided voters, i.e. those whose preferences are not so rigid, that they can be changed by the impact of the election campaign.

Hence , a suitable strategy for carrying out this particular function, is for the relevant political party to concentrate on mobilizing that category of its ‘strong supporters’ ; plus the third category of those “undecided voters”, by attempting to persuade them to vote for its candidates. An anonymous sage once said that “knowledge is power” .

This understanding of “the proper function of elections in a democracy” will, hopefully, empower the people to participate more fully in the entire election process, from the registration of voters to actual voting on election day itself.

And, additionally, knowledge regarding “the essential role of political parties in the parliamentary system of government” will also solidify their acceptance of the fact that “political parties are absolutely essential for the proper functioning of the parliamentary system of governance. ELIMU HAINA MWISHO.

piomsekwa@gmail.com / 0754767576

Author: Pius Msekwa

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