Negative campaigns

2011-05-10 00:00

IN a tough contest for electoral support such as in the local government elections this month, it is to be expected that parties will take advantage of opponents' weaknesses. But when this is repeated too much it becomes the main message and electoral strategy. Then it becomes negative campaigning.

This is the case when a party seeks to gain the advantage by telling voters how bad its opponents are rather than positively demonstrating that it can do better. When a party spends too much time telling voters about its opponents, it suggests that it does not have something in its own track record to use to project itself as being better than others.

The Democratic Alliance has done this in the past. Many will remember the much-maligned fight-back campaign in the 1999 elections and the "Stop Zuma" slogan during the 2009 national polls. They backfired because the first was seen as an attempt to use swart gevaar to counter a strong African National Congress campaign and the second overpersonalised the DA campaign by focusing on prejudice about Jacob Zuma. In both cases, the DA did not have a positive real-life story to use to convey a message that if given an opportunity it would do better than the ANC.

This year's is arguably the most hotly contested local government election yet. Like the national elections in 2009, it is the growing vulnerability of the ANC and the DA, its closest rival, that makes this the most interesting electoral contest. The temptation to use negative electioneering on both sides is, therefore, high.

Twice bitten, the DA wants to avoid repeating the mistake. It was probably warned that spending too much time projecting the ANC as corrupt and incompetent, as it may be tempted to do, would work against its intensive efforts to woo ordinary black voters. Such a message would be received as a form of white prejudice against black people.

On the other hand, the ANC has been able to capitalise on its brand, history, personalities and grass-roots network to grow its electoral support. Of course, infighting, a number of scandals (the latest being about Minister Sicelo Shiceka), the naturally fading memory of history and opportunism that has led to community protests over the past four years are all harming the ANC brand. This much is discussed in its organisational reports from conferences in Mafikeng (1997), Stellenbosch (2003) and Polokwane (2007).

The local government turn-around strategy that Shiceka energetically championed at the same time as he successfully resolved community complaints over cross-border municipalities was poised to transform local government enough to give the ANC sufficient examples to prove its ability to transform municipal governance positively.

Analysts praised the turn-around strategy for acting on outcomes of a local government audit, especially the idea of fixing the basics of local governance and economic development. It also correctly identified the key challenges as incompetence, political wrangles and overreach, skills shortage, and weak planning and resource management. The responses were also sound. But it could not be successfully implemented by the officials and councillors that had led to failures it sought to correct.

The second opportunity was the fact that the ANC took the risk of giving communities an opportunity to nominate alternative candidates, which would be seen as a bold move to democratise the party, but this has led to protests over the alleged mismanagement of outcomes.

Now some in the ANC are tempted to talk about how bad the DA is in Cape Town rather than showing that the municipalities it governs itself are better run. This card can be counterproductive if overplayed.

For instance, the open toilets saga of the DA-run Cape Town, whose performance is overstated by a sympathetic media anyway, may have been overplayed by some in the ANC. It may backfire now that an ANC-run municipality in the Free State is reported in a Sunday newspaper to have done the same.

The ANC should undercut the DA by demonstrating that ANC-led municipalities are better run.

But the DA is also realising that in its message on Midvaal and Cape Town, there is also a line not to be crossed on that front as exaggeration of good performance may project the party as lacking in integrity by those who do not experience the excellence trumpeted.

• Nalini Naidoo's column will appear on Wednesdays in future.

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