Monday, September 27, 2010

Politics and Media: The Party That Gagged Itself

The Establishment is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to political material to blog about. CCM has shown creativity in its campaign media strategy. However it recently earned itself the distinction of being the only party in Tanzania that is hostile to dialogue. That's right: a political party that is hostile to dialogue during the campaign season of a general election year. WWNT*?

A couple of weeks ago CCM forbade its candidates from participating in political debates. This blanket ban covers presidential, parliamentary and local government candidates and includes private and public media as well as political rallies. CCM has decided to do this during the 2010 elections that mark the dawn of both the media age and democratic competition in Tanzania. Stop laughing, I couldn't make up this kind of PR disaster if I was paid to do it.

There is no bigger gift that CCM could have given the opposition than their silence. These days, tune into the radio or any of the major TV stations and you are likely to trip over a political debate. The beauty of the exercise is that candidates are invited to these debates, deferring the costs of having to place ads and packaged messages to promote their manifestos. An opportunity that the opposition has embraced and CCM has chosen to ignore

A couple of nights ago, My Lady of the Sly Smiles called me to tune into ITV. Veteran journalist and agent provocateur Jenerali Ulimwengu was moderating a debate between youth candidates from the opposition at the Kilimanjaro Kempinski. Some of those candidates are very seriously impressive. One or two even displayed gravitas, a nice characteristic to have as a politician. The empty CCM spot stuck out like a missing tooth in a supermodel's smile. In protest, one older gentleman in the audience captured the mike and asked the GoP in absentia a rather irate question. Heh.

There is a saying that 'tis better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt. Running for office must be the exception to the rule. Even in the public-image-driven US where a number of leaders have been superbly dense (Quayle, Bush II, Palin...), ways have been found to manage the situation. The same could be done, surely, at the presidential candidate level. For all his accessibility and genuine love of people, Celebrident Kikwete does NOT do spontaneous Q&A sessions with the press around. It is one of the wonderfully bizarre contradictions of President The Fourth's character, and his administration.

Through its gag-order, CCM is deliberately giving up on the most critical media, as Jiang Alipo points out:
"TV is even more intimate than the closed meetings they have which only die hard CCM members and leaders attend. A candidate explaining his/her policies on my TV screen is more intimate; it feels more like one is talking to me in my seating room. The good thing about TV debate is that we see the communication skills of the candidates, particularly those capable to debate issues and answer questions about important issues direct from the voters."
It may be that this decision is based on CCM's belief that it will win no matter what, that the opposition poses a negligible threat, and that voters are content to elect a party that does not respect their intellect. The implicit message is that CCM don't have to work for our vote, they just assume we'll give it to them. What a brave notion. Alternatively, the gag order is an act of sheer desperation. Maybe the Party believes that it will be used to mop the floor clean if it engages with the opposition and with voters in policy debates. If that's the case, I would have to encourage the Party to gird its loins. Better prove to be a fool in public than give off the pungent odor of political cowardice.

*WWNT= What Would Nyerere Think? Ruling parties are often prone to desperately bad PR decisions, but this one surely deserves a prize. The ghost of Mwalimu is probably crying at the sight of such political incompetence.

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