The Perils of the Permanent Campaign

I’ve been watching a whole lot of West Wing on DVD during my time here so you will have to excuse me as I start this week’s post with a little bit of American political history…

In 1962, a young pollster named Patrick Caddell outlined a new political strategy for then President Jimmy Carter.  In short, he highlighted the fact that many great ideas and indeed many great men were being overlooked as the public failed to ‘get’ their ideas. With the increasing importance of television in shaping the nation’s political outlook, it was time to put as much (if not more) effort into style of delivery as it was into political substance. The end result put Jimmy in cardigans for ‘fireside chats’ with the American people to mixed success.

So began the birth of the ‘Permanent Campaign’ and politics was never to be the same again, as it became dictated by the vagaries of the 24 hour news cycle and the latest polling data. The results of this strategy will be very familiar to anybody with even a passing interest in modern global politics; Sound bites over detailed discussion, spin over substantive debate. I thought I had seen this at its worst whilst living in “post 9/11 America” and ensuing “Iraq war Britain” but in fact Zambia seems to be afflicted by an even more blunt and damaging style of permanent campaigning.

“Sata is Satan” blared a headline this week as the Republican President equated his main rival to the hoofed one. Not to be outdone, Sata replied the following day that “President Rupiah Banda is so ugly he could win an ugly competition.” Just to be clear, these headlines come not from some trash tabloid but the most serious minded, independent newspaper in the country!

True, this pair did fight out an extremely close election last time and the next one may be tighter still but depressingly we are more than a year and a half away from that particular poll. One can only imagine the many more months of mudslinging headlines Zambians have yet to wake up to insult their intelligence for another day.

The political discourse would be almost comic were it not for the mountain of serious problems facing the political leadership. Forget for a moment the chronic challenges of underdevelopment, the global recession and the resulting fatigue of hearing how bad things are – there are also new, pressing issues of national and personal interest that shockingly still fail to be addressed in a meaningful or coherent way by either the politicians or the press that follow them.

Take for example the rolling fuel shortages that have crippled the country for the last month. They were triggered when the ageing national refinery gave up the ghost a few weeks before it was due to be shut for annual repair. The site is in such disrepair that Total, the international partner, has decided to pull out leaving the government with 100% ownership and trying to defend a decision to keep repairing a run down refinery when trucking fuel directly into the country would be considerably cheaper and more reliable.

This is an issue that affects almost every Zambian from higher prices in the ubiquitous blue mini-buses to whole days wasted waiting in line to fill up their tanks before the next sporadic shortage hits. Yet there is precious little debate amongst the politicians or the press about what Zambia really needs with its own outdated refinery and the merits of applying tariffs on incoming fuel to keep it competitive.

The story even took a tragic “personal interest” turn on Tuesday when one of those blue mini-buses hit a fuel tanker coming into the country to alleviate the shortage – killing 19 and injuring over 40. Yet that story merited only a tiny quarter column on page 5 compared to the ‘would the President win an ugly competition’ discussion on page 1.

You could argue that Zambia has enjoyed multi-party democracy and a free press for less than 20 years and sometimes mature political discourse takes a while to emerge. Yet when day to day discussions with my Zambian colleagues reveal a highly politically literate population with a hunger for real political solutions to their very real problems – you can only conclude that they deserve far better than this political Punch and Judy show.

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  1. […] A political discourse that may be pathetically immature at times, but makes for some very funny headlines […]



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