Why is the government running away?

Wed, 27 Jun 2012 Source: Bokor, Michael J. K.

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I have been told that before the 1979 general elections, all the Presidential Candidates were subjected to intensive interviewing on Ghana TV for them to tell Ghanaians why they should be voted for. Information has it that in one of those interviews, the late Kwame Nyanteh (an Independent Presidential Candidate) was quizzed about his economic policies, especially the rationale behind his “One-Pound One Pound” slogan.

Apparently, Kwame Nyanteh had told Ghanaians that if he won the elections, he would re-introduce the British Pound Sterling to replace the country’s Cedi. Unimpressed by the persistent questioning and the strident demand for further clarification, he lost his cool and told the host: “You are a goat!” Being put on the spot during interviews or any other public forum can be unnerving. It can lead to many unpleasant moments for unguarded utterances to be made—which will definitely have a heavy toll on the candidate’s political fortunes. While some people in authority are wary of such occasions, others at the touchlines seeking public goodwill to be in authority cherish it to blow their own horns.

A Presidential Debate is one such occasion. It has been held during election years in this 4th Republic. Wha the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) intends to host this year isn’t a novelty. It has its merits, no matter what political machinations anybody might want to read into it. That is why news reports that the government has decided that President Mills shouldn’t participate in this debate is troubling.

By spurning this invitation to participate in the debate, the government hasn’t given a good account of itself. Indeed, it has missed the boat and shouldn’t complain when hurt by the negative fallouts.

In politics, every opportunity to blow one’s horn should be welcomed and used to the full.

We guess that the President may be apprehensive of a hostile audience (especially functionaries of rival political parties at the event); but it shouldn’t be anything to disarm him because a much larger audience would be observing proceedings from afar and drawing its own conclusion. This much larger audience will be Ghanaians who will not be physically present at the event being hosted by the IEA but who will be privy to it as it is broadcast or telecast live.

That’s the constituency that the government must aim at reaching out to, no matter the reception the President might get from the audience in the auditorium. But refusing to participate in the event shatters it all. If it is the fear of hostility from party opponents that is at issue, what prevents the government from encouraging its supporters and well-wishers to attend the event and cheer on the President to drown the hooting and jeering of their rivals?

More importantly, what is the government worried about to take this line of action and deny itself the glorious opportunity to make its case for re-election? Is it not confident in its own accomplishments or ability to do more (and bet ter) so as to use the occasion to whip up support for its re-election bid? The reasons adduced for the decision to boycott the forum are porous and unconvincing, to say the least.

Reason 1:

The government has cited precedents to support its decision. The official statement referred to the 2004 version of the Presidential Debate hosted by the IEA, which then President Kufuor abstained from. Unfortunately, on that occasion, Kufuor had already positioned himself to win that year’s elections. Then Candidate Mills took part in that debate but lost the elections. We won’t attribute that loss to any failure on his part to use the exposure at the debate to woo voters. He lost because the voters didn’t go for him. We note that in 2000 when the Presidential Debate was organized, then Candidate Mills refused to participate in it. Some of the reasons given to justify that abstention were the hostility likely to be displayed toward him and the claim that the debate wasn’t the appropriate occasion for Mills to reach out to the voters. In essence, having been the Vice President for four years, he had already had enough exposure to win the day for him. He lost the elections. As Fate would have it, Candidate Mills turned full circle to participate in the 2008 version of the debate. I don’t know if he used his delivery to endear himself to the hearts of the people; but he lost the first round of the Presidential elections. Fortunately, the run-off went in his favour to shatter Akufo-Addo’s ambitions.

In the preparation for the 2012 elections, the President has chosen not to participate in the debate, apparently because of an anticipated hostile reception.

Because the questions to be asked at the forum will not be specifically custom-made for each candidate—implying that the most embarrassing moments would be reserved for the incumbent—there is no justification for the government to fear that its participant will be handled as if he’s been chosen for a special revenge.

Reason 2:

The NDC’s Propaganda Secretary, Richard Quashiga, said the NDC did not need the IEA’s platform “to sell” President Mills for the upcoming elections. This reason is not only childish but it is also mischievous. If the President found it decent and politically beneficial to participate in a previous debate, why should anybody now claim that the same event isn’t what he needs to survive the whirligig of Election 2012? I smell something malodorous here.

Other reasons account for this backtracking; and they make more sense than the import of the official statement and Quashiga’s claim. The government has no trust or confidence in the IEA to superintend over the event dispassionately. That is what we must be told instead.

The IEA itself has serious credibility problems. We recollect the blunder it caused nearly three years ago in the publication at its Web site that impugned the integrity of the government. As the negative fallouts from that publication registered, the IEA surreptitiously deleted the text from its Web site, forgetting that it had already been cached and made available to whoever knew how to access it. I did so and even wrote an article on it to condemn the IEA for its unprincipled and unprofessional conduct.

Although the IEA may claim to be qualified to organize and supervise or moderate the Presidential Debate, its credibility is on the line, which is why the government won’t come along with it in this case. The IEA didn’t do anything to repair that dented image and it is too late now for it to attempt doing so. The overarching opinion, however, favours the intention to hold this Presidential Debate to give the Presidential Candidates the elbow room they need to reach out to the electorate. This forum is a major political event that is cherished in the advanced world, where those who organise and moderate it do so without any demonstration of political bias or disdain toward the participants. It gives the electorate another lens through which to view the candidates. In the United States, for instance, it is a major aspect of the political electioneering process and it operates at different levels. There is a version at the party level for aspiring Presidential Candidates (as we saw in the case of all those vying for the Republican Party’s slot) and another at the highest level for recognized Presidential Candidates of the various parties. Public interest in such debates is always profound and participants’ fate begins being determined by their performance at such an event. Answers to pertinent questions could make or mar a candidate’s chances.

That’s why in our own case, it is important for those responsible for organizing such a forum to come across as untainted by any political bias or prejudice. Unfortunately, because almost every sector of our national life has been politicized, it is not difficult to tell where anybody belongs. Who will want to expose his underbelly to a political opponent disguised as a moderator of such a debate to be bombarded at will with disturbing questions and exposed to ridicule? Certainly, not Atta Mills.

But the deeper-level aspects of the debate should have been carefully weighed by the government to ensure that it doesn’t shut the door to itself. Participating in the debate could help President Mills debunk negative perceptions or re-affirm his government’s commitment to build on the foundation that it has laid under its “Better Ghana” agenda. Or isn’t there anything to defend and use as the bait to attract voters to the government’s cause? It is obvious that the opponents (particularly the NPP’s Akufo-Addo, the most desperate of all the candidates) may effusively cite failures of the government and use the occasion to cast insinuations and downright half-truths. But that is to be expected in a political contest. The consolation, however, might be that such candidates will concentrate on making promises that Ghanaians will be discerning enough to dismiss as a mere ploy to win their mandate.

Already, the NPP’s Akufo-Addo and his running mate have repeatedly bored the electorate with their constant reiteration of the promise on free education at the secondary level as if that is what Ghana needs to progress beyond where it is now. Akufo-Addo doesn’t have substance in his campaign message. He was out yesterday to say that a government under him would not indulge in “chop-chop” galore, which is itself a disingenuous claim to make, knowing very well who he is and what he was part of under the Kufuor government.

The citizens already know these Presidential Candidates and won’t be expected to perceive them in any extra-ordinary way. What they will be looking for is a reassurance that those seeking their mandate are the real solvers of the problems that have consistently kept them in narrow circumstances. They want to hear from these candidates the answers that they have to the questions to be raised. And these questions won’t concern anything but those very problems. Does the government think that its campaign messages will not reflect the import of the issues to be raised at this IEA’s forum? Won’t the government campaign on issues that it hopes to benefit from? If so, how different will its use of those issues be from whatever responses that the President might give to questions to be asked him during the Presidential Debate?

Something is not adding up well at all. The government seems to be losing grips on public relations and the entire communication business. In an election year, such a loss could be profoundly damaging.

So, why should the government run away from this glorious moment to use its performance over the past three years as a trump-card to shoot ahead of the curve? Or isn’t there any accomplishment on which to base any argument for re-election? Only those seeking the President’s downfall will support this decision to boycott the IEA’s Presidential Debate. It is not too late to rescind this negative decision.

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Columnist: Bokor, Michael J. K.