All indications are that the election race has been kicked up a gear. Political parties and candidates have switched their campaigns trains to overdrive. It is as if the beginning of the new year signalled the beginning of the final lap and the resulting mad dash for the finishing line.
The race can only heat up further with less than friendly fire expected not only between “opposition parties” and the “ruling party”, but also among the former. In fact, the recent distinction by the MCP presidential candidate of his candidacy from those of candidates whose standing is based on their being sons or brothers of former presidents was effectively throwing his hat into the ring for the start of intra-opposition campaign duels.
As party gurus and their campaign strategists burn the midnight oil, plotting and scheming what they believe to be their formulae for a sure victory, it is the time of the voter. It is a different time from that outside of the election period, when most politicians regard and treat the electorate as little more than a mass of inconsequential, nagging beggars.
As polling day draws closer, however, the tables have turned. The voter can now wallow in his or her newly-restored status as an attractive target of the advances of political parties and candidates. We, the voters, can now tease and tantalise these seekers of votes with the promise of giving them a great time on 20th May through the casting of a favourable vote.
As this delicate dance between vote-seekers and voters rolls towards its climax, I am struck by one glaring gap in the information that parties are working with in developing and executing their campaign strategies. That missing information can be summed up in the question: who votes in Malawi and why?
Let me start with making a bold claim: almost all parties and candidates currently engaged in the election campaign have very little evidence-based idea of who votes in elections in Malawi and what reasons influence them to vote one way or the other.
In the absence of such information, campaign activities and messages by competing parties and candidates, as well as civil society organisations involved in election advocacy activities are the equivalent of shooting in the dark, based on assumptions of where the target is, and hoping for the best.
The reason for this situation is that there have been few reliable studies of voting behaviour and choices in Malawian elections. By such studies I do not mean ad hoc, unstructured “research” by biased party supporters or sympathisers, of which there is no shortage. What I have in mind is different.
I am thinking of investigations of the questions- who votes in Malawian elections? and what factors influence their choices- which are reliable and credible because they meet all the methodological requirements of credible and reliable surveys. To conduct such studies, parties and candidates do not even have to spend the millions in hiring professional social scientists and statisticians. I am sure that each party has, within its ranks, dozens of supporters or members who would be willing to do this work for free as a contribution to their party.
In the absence of a full understanding of the dynamics of voter demographics and choices which comes with systematic study, parties and candidates are left with very little to go on in designing their campaign strategies and tactics. In the event, they fall back on a hotchpotch of simplistic assumptions, including the following: that handouts influence voters to vote in the donors’ favour; that so called regional or ethnic “strongholds” remain unchanged from one election to the next; that the failure of voters to vote for female candidates is due to the lack of civic education; or that rural voters are less informed about matters covered in the media than urban ones.
It is time that parties and contesting candidates grounded their campaigns in empirical evidence, and not self-serving presumptions and presuppositions about the mind of the Malawian voter. This is not rocket science. In fact, it is something that is appreciated by even the most basic of marketers. That is why they invented market research, to help inform them of the preferences of potential customers before investing in a sales campaign.
Of course, there are winners and losers in any contest, and there will be those who will wake up to the harsh reality of defeat when the Electoral Commission announces its results in the days following May 20.
For many, defeat will be particularly bitter because they will have been cockily confident of victory based on their assumptions about who votes and why. They will wish they had been a little more systematic in their investigation of voter behaviour and less trusting of guesswork and conjecture. Unfortunately, at that point, the next opportunity to be more evidence-based in campaigning will be five years away.
Some would say that is what one deserves if he or she shoots in the dark, hoping to hit a target using an aiming strategy that is based on the previous location of the target or the reassurances of sympathetic cheerleaders that your aim is good.