By Beny SAM
Scores of Patriotic Sierra Leoneans, having gotten to the reality that we will be stuck with the All Peoples Congress and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party for decades more have thus concluded that a strong enlightened civil population should be mobilized to move from ethnic and regional pattern of voting. An additional action is to scrap all present political parties and come up with a realistic Constitution and other statutory documents that could reverse the current untoward political quagmire. This definitely is necessary and indeed doable. If you do not think this is right, at least the minority has their say in the democratic tradition.
The current scan of our political parties shows a whole lot of undemocratic systems, processes and procedures hardly in line with good governance and all the tenets thereof. In other words, we need a somewhat complete overhaul of our current political parties to kill entrenched old ways that are inimical to progress and overall development. Unless we citizens are ready to confront dishonesty in governance and stop scapegoating the poor and vulnerable, the tail will continue to wag the dog.
This leaves me with the question: what really is the role of political parties? Generally, we are told “A Political Party brings together people with the same political ideas. By taking part in an election, parties hope to get as many of their members as possible into a representative body, like parliament or a municipal council. At the same time, they try to hold as many posts as possible in the government, or the municipal or provincial executive.” This description of a political party and what they do shows a lot of variance with our Sierra Leone parties. In the first place, most of our parties were and are still created around a single individual who virtually initially provides the resources for the party. Again members are mainly drawn from the founding fathers’ ethnic group and district or region. For the two main parties, their members are virtually relatives and friends born into those parties and see a kind of blood tie with their forebears and they cling to them blindly, fanatically and sycophantically like zombies.
We will look at three schools of thought about democracy and political parties’ role; one claims that democracy induces governments to be responsive to the preferences of the people. The other claims that parties are what induce democracies to be responsive. Yet others believe parties give voice to extremists and reduce the responsiveness of governments to the citizenry.
For us in Sierra Leone we have had quite a lot of issues of representation and governability. We have tried out both the “first past the post “and the “District Block Proportional Representation,” but there have been a lot of dissatisfaction of these systems. Well perhaps it is more the understanding and how parties may like to use them to their advantage. A lot depend on parties’ objectives and their organization.
In a 1942 writing, EE Schattschneider “believed that political parties “created” American Democracy…by drawing the masses into political life. However, in many parts of the world, the failure of democracy is blamed on political parties. Sierra Leone can be a striking example where there is no Third Force even when there are 17 odd parties that are registered and do take part in elections. Despite the demerits of political parties, it is believed that legislative politics is unstable without parties. For decisions to be stable and seen as authentic political parties are needed especially in multiparty democracy. In our recent situation in Sierra Leone the APC refused to take part in governance at all levels. It was only after negotiated dialogue that the party allowed its Members of Parliament and Councillors to take up their positions, after some three months. It seems our democracy is getting back on its feet.
Like mooted earlier many parties mobilize their voters based on ethnic and regional affiliation. Especially in Africa where in one country almost “every kilometre is another language,” it is almost so obvious to have your tribesmen in your party. There is the general consent that democracy induces governments to the preferences of the people. Is this the case in Sierra Leone? Definitely No! The myriad of tax and tariff increases proposed for the financial year 2024 show clearly that it is exclusively aimed at sourcing funds for the government while the effects will make the poor vulnerable citizens poorer.
Like it is now our political party members look to their party winning elections especially the Presidency so that they can get jobs, contracts and other benefits. In a poor country where jobs are hard to get, joining a political party that wins may change your socio-economic situation positively. This is why the competition of the key parties becomes very keen especially as our laws support the winner-take-all. In all this, although voter preferences count sometimes sections of voters do not really care the programs outlined during campaigns; they have already made up their minds on which party to vote for irrespective of the candidates. In many parties, candidates want to win elections but once in office, they decide to impose their preferences, which are at variance with the average voter.
One other angle one needs to explore is the effects of incumbency in a democracy. In a system where the winner takes all, the incumbent has the advantage of having so many resources at its disposal and most times uses them to the disadvantage of other parties with limited stuff, especially after two terms in opposition. In the area of Party manifestoes, sometimes we see instances of deviation from party manifestoes once elections are won. Because parties are anxious to win elections, they sometimes formulate overambitious manifestoes. For their part, the usually gullible voters never find out where the resources will come from to implement the ambitious programs. When the party comes to power that is the time they realize they had been taken for a jolly stupid ride. Various untenable excuses will be given; of course, the electorates are left high and dry. Sometimes if not most times, candidates having last the term, the office holder tends to make a shift in the Manifesto plans since he is no longer facing the electorate. On the other hand, activists who have no prospect of holding office, care most about ideology and policy and have ways of inducing candidates away from the median voter. This is sometimes the right picture, and certain dynamic patterns do tend to appear. What often happens is that when a party leader is actively seeking office or holds office and can seek re-election, she ought to ally with other leaders who will someday be candidates and distance herself from activists. When she is a last-termer, her natural allies should be the party activists, and her natural antagonists should be party leaders who will run in the future. A horizontal pattern of party cohesion is often evident when a leader is re-eligible; a vertical pattern of cohesion, linking officeholders with activists against the leadership, should appear when the leader is ineligible. This is the reason why an incumbent doing a second and last term is often accused of a “sell-out” as is the case in Sierra Leone.
Democracy might have its flaws but today it is the best political preference as evidenced by more of the world population living under democracy than ever before. Some of democracy’s attributes are responsiveness, representation, accountability and the realization of the public good, and if devoid of ethnicity and regionalism, it can work well for Sierra Leone.