How The 21st Century Killed Old-Fashioned Elections

With the rise of social networking, fake news and changing psychologies, political parties have little use now for traditional campaigns.

Today's elections are something new and unknown
Today's elections are something new and unknown
Mario Riorda*


BUENOS AIRES — It took just 25 years into the new century to kill off the electoral campaign.

Election campaigns used to seek shock and creativity. The ability to stand out and make an impact was prized. These were festivals of communication. But media are now rewarding persistence and enduring positions. Political identities are not as easily forged, even when spending big sums, and those those that do have staying power, in the medium and long term, can end up working as counter-identities.

Electoral processes used to have one relevant function: as debates on future policies. This is no longer so clear. At best they have become emotional plebiscites for incumbents who themselves echo their opponents and their terminology. Campaigns are replete with "terminators' who mete out justice as a spectacle, using an entirely subjective discourse. As if sifting through evidence, rivals dissect the past rather than discussing the future. In modern electioneering, democratic dialogue, empathy and understanding have given way to hostilities against a villainous opposition. Opponents have become nothing but a candidate's nemesis.

In this setting, prejudiced and brazen postures are dominant and, with the demise of "political correctness," prejudices can be aired, cost-free. Radicalism does not just gain ground; it wins elections

In this setting, prejudiced and brazen postures are dominant.

There used to be talk of "permanent" campaigning, with the emphasis always on the short-term. Day-to-day governance would thus become an ongoing opportunity to win votes and renew majorities. That meant governments needed a constant flow of good news and positive stats. Today, there is no longer a single agenda and multiple trends are digested before campaigning starts. Voters read and see what they want, and choose their media anticipating what these will report.

The main issue in this setting, as the Spanish academic Ismael Crespo argues, is merely to exist and fight liquid opinions. Messages today are ephemeral and will age fairly fast. Their permanence in the communicational space is inevitably fleeting, and political action is rather linked to appearance and visibility. This is a two-way dynamic of course: politicians need to be seen by the public, and citizens make it their daily business to air their complaints.

Ours is the time of pseudo-events that seek to become communicational events regardless of their political contribution. Far from being constructive proposals, their importance is strictly to be useful in themselves. Politics thus becomes a daily regime of competing pseudo-events that are as inconsequential as they are divisive, and as intensely debated as the biggest policy issues.

The competing "events' of politics are just as inconsequential as they are divisive — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The target of these developments is potential supporters. The aim is to maintain tribal cohesion, stimulating identity traits and fanning passionate loyalties even if these clash with the democratic consensus and its norms. Anything goes (violence, humiliations, transgressions) when defending the group identity, including — needless to say — lying. Indeed, the truth becomes increasingly disputed and can barely compete with "authentic" versions of itself like post-truth, or even plain fiction. It would be difficult here to cite rationality as an explanation of electoral conduct.

In adventures, the guarantees of normalcy are suspended as the philosopher Fernando Savater says. Daring electoral adventures are those that win most media coverage and public attention. These will prompt "spasms' of support or controversy, which parties find more useful, and cheaper, than the solid campaign strategies of old.

Communication planning that would bank on television and graphics is now history. It used to be predictable: If you spent lots of money, you could expect big effects. Not anymore, though paradoxically parties are still spending as much on conventional media while boosting spending on content positioning in social media. Social media, one should note, have neither time nor regulations but a price. They may be the most visible electoral medium. They also lack replicable patterns or models except perhaps for one: authenticity, which is practically a commodity today.

Social media, one should note, have neither time nor regulations but a price.

Criticisms of negative campaigning are also a thing of the past. Campaigns have become adversarial exercises responding to public disgust, and are no longer the legitimating rites of democracy. While they do assure the transfer of power, political systems are increasingly heaving in their wake for the intensity of the rejections and discord generated. At best they legitimize winners — for a while.

Nor do modern elections necessarily reward or punish politicians anymore for failing to honor pledges. The French philosopher Bernard Manin says that in running for office, politicians know they will inevitably face unforeseen conditions, which makes them reluctant to firmly tie themselves to detailed or specific programs. When contingencies arise, randomness imposes its rules on events.

And yet, there remains a very powerful triple norm in predicting electoral movements, regardless of pledges: Ideology, tribalism and prejudices. With these, classic election campaigns may be declared dead. What we have now is something else, with entirely different effects.

*The author is a political communications expert at the Universidad Austral in Buenos Aires and president of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Investigadores en Campañas Electorales (Latin American Association of Electoral Campaign Researchers, ALICE)

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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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