On Elections: Not Only Gambians Vote on Emotions
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Think Only Gambians Vote on Emotions? Think Again.
By Cherno Baba Jallow
Elections come and go, but the 2012 US presidential election will perhaps be noted in history for its marked contradictions: torment and excitement, certainty and suspicion, political deaths and surreal comebacks. Elections are nothing noteworthy without the flourishes of emotions, the conspicuousness of feelings, the histrionics of events, some interwoven, some displaced, and some just jarringly incomprehensible. The kind of fanfare elections breed makes it a hobby at once exhilarating and mind-boggling; addictive, too.
I have to admit: for a big part of my life, I have been a political junkie, fascinated by politics and elections and the personalities that occupy the political stage. But until in the 2008 US presidential elections, when I first got my voting experience, I was only a bystander, merely observing and not participating in, the electoral process.
While living in The Gambia, I observed elections come and go, but didn’t even bother to register for a voter’s card. I knew I had political feelings for one candidate or another, but I never cared to exercise my right to vote. I forfeited it, preferring banal, sometimes heated, political banter, in street corners and at Attaya Vous to actually participating in the electoral process. Maybe, it was because I felt that in the grand scheme of things, and in the nature of Gambian elections, where it was always crystal clear who the eventual winner was going to be, my vote wouldn’t count, or, excuse the cliché, move the needle.
My first experience with elections was in 1982, the year Independent candidate Buba M. Baldeh, riding on a crest wave of anti-incumbent feelings in Basse, took on the entire PPP juggernaut in URD and dislodged the late Alhaji Kebba Krubally. I spent the entire night with my late uncle Naphew Jallow and others listening in to the election returns on national radio. I scribbled the tallies on a piece of paper as they came in. Before long, it became evident, and my uncle’s disappointment bared it all, that the Basse PPP seat was going to be taken – by a newcomer, who, by dint of personal charm and youth, all alone dismantled the PPP machinery in Basse.
The 1982 parliamentary election in Basse remains imprinted in my memory greatly because it was my introduction to politics, at least, at the local level. I attended rallies of both parties, joined the throng of crowds at the homes of the politicians vying for office: Kebba Krubally, M.C. Cham, Buba Baldeh. I was, on numerous occasions, tempted to get on those lorries – sometimes, the yellow GPMB trucks – transporting PPP supporters to and from campaign events. I liked the cultural music, the “Tama” and the “Nyarero” and the drums – their beats and sounds could be heard amidst the chorus of voices on the tucks, as they snarled, or occasionally rumbled, through town.
The Famou Hocha and His Group: Providing Entertainment on Gambian Campaign Trails. (1977)/Photo Credit: Wuyeh Yorro Sanyang
And in the by-election a few years later, after the cross-carpeting of Baldeh to the PPP, Basse was caught up in another theatrical election cycle. The fight for votes was done family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood, village by village. In the end, PPP won back the Basse seat barely, just by a paltry fiftysomething votes. Basse saw virtually every Banjul PPP stalwart descend on its political soil, canvassing for votes for Alhaji Omar Sey. It was a defeat for Ousainou Baldeh, but in defeat, he still was able to amass a lot of attention for giving the entire PPP apparatus a run for their money and for being close to winning the seat.
From the political battles of the 1960s to the recent defeat of Alhaji Selu Bah, Basse has a history of bucking the trend, refusing to join the flow, and doing it its way. This is what elections are about: providing choices and voters exercising their mandates, unyielding to fear or patronage. Yet it was never evident, if those elections in Basse and like other elections in The Gambia, provided clear-cut choices or were issue-driven to the extent of providing enough information to allow rational political decisions at the polling both. But how rational are voters?
Even with a politically sophisticated and informed voting public like the American electorate, decisions are at not always rational, are not always based on the issues. People care about the issues (taxes, jobs, foreign policy, et al) alright, but a candidate’s personality, his or her ability to relate to people matters equally, if not more, on voters’ minds. It is true of Gambian elections as it is with American or any other elections in advanced democracies: that voters are a sentimental bunch and that their personal feelings towards a candidate, leaving aside the issues at play, trumps it all.
In 2008, I voted for then-Senator Barack Obama. My vote, save for my distaste for the Bush years, was driven not by the issues but by the recognition, if conveniently, that America was on the cusp of electing its first black president. I couldn’t be indifferent to the historical value of my voting – for the first time, and for the first black president – in US elections. I also felt that I could relate to Obama more than his challenger Senator John McCain. In this year’s US presidential elections, opinion polls have shown President Obama to be more likeable than his challenger Governor Mitt Romney. Obama, say the opinion polls, is more caring and attuned to the issues affecting the common man and woman. This might be enough of a reason for the American electorate to return him to power
Personalities, rather than the issues or a profound understanding of them, tend to make or break elections. In the main, voters are more moved by a candidate’s theatrics, personal qualities and his or her ability to relate to voters and make them feel counted and cherished. This is true in The Gambia as well as in the US, this embodiment of participatory democracy.
Cherno Baba Jallow is a contributing editor for My Basse. He resides in Southfield, Michigan, USA.