With the 2009 Lebanese parliamentary elections on everyone’s mind and the US presidential campaign in its final stretch, one cannot stop but wonder how far we still are in the Middle East compared to the West, in terms of giving political communication the importance it deserves.
Many in our region consider political communication simply a means to “promote” a political party, a candidate seeking an additional term in office, or even wanna-be politicians, with their election “campaigning” simply being limited to plastering a few pictures of a candidate on the side of the roads or hanging parties’ flags on street poles.
With examining the track record of elections across the region — at least in the countries that actually do hold elections — comes the realization that the political candidates vying for public office have never really had to do anything more. The people never seriously demanded that their elected officials be held responsible for their performance once they are in office. No need for any of what is considered as staples of election campaigns in Western democracies: no need for a comprehensive political agenda — and certainly no need to communicate, publish, or distribute it — no need for televised public debates, and no need for a real town hall meeting where voters can truly question the candidates on their positions and planned programs.
Contrary to the giant leaps in leveraging creative campaign communication in the rest of the world, time seems to have frozen when it comes to elections communication in the Arab world. Simply relying on the same old tactics that appeal to the people’s ethnic, religious, or confessional insecurities or that aim at creating ‘name awareness’ by flooding the streets with posters and banners, has always been sufficient to secure candidates’ election.
On the other end of the spectrum, the accrued political maturity in Western democracies has meant that the people demand accountability. Elected officials are voted into office based on a clearly defined and communicated platform or agenda that would govern their mandate and serve as the basis for judging their performance. Communicating this political program thus holds candidates accountable vis-à-vis their electorate. This has led to political communication becoming the foundation of the political system and the basis for the “social contract” between a candidate and the public.
Candidates in mature democracies today cannot but acknowledge the importance of interactive communication as a means to open channels and establish intimacy with their constituents. Holding public rallies, going on cross- country road trips to introduce themselves and their ideas to voters, setting up informative and engaging websites, writing their thoughts on blogs, and capitalizing on urban culture phenomena such as YouTube and Facebook are no longer luxuries. Candidates are in effect required to engage in open communication that allows voters to be informed and hold them liable and accountable.
It is this accountability that we seem to be missing the most in our part of the world. If accountability gave rise to impactful political communication in the West, and as accountability is a fleeting value that we just cannot seem to reach, perhaps we should leverage political communication to bring about accountability in our region. By clearly informing the public of their stand on issues at stake, and communicating their political agenda through a wide range of communication initiatives, politicians would be raising awareness and paving the way for a renewed rapport to govern their relationship with voters, whereby citizens can hold them accountable once they are elected.
Just as politicians in the West can no longer afford flip- flopping with the media scrutinizing their every move and speech (just ask Hillary Clinton and her position on the war in Iraq) with YouTube, TV archives, websites, and their own published statements and political programs “coming back to bite them,” engaging in true political communication would mean that our politicians cannot renege on their words without being sanctioned for it.
Unsurprisingly, transparent and engaging political communication turns out to be as rewarding to voters as it is to the candidates, who as a result of such open communication create strong affinities with voters, giving rise to passionate supporters who campaign on behalf of the candidates, with sometimes more successful results. Obama’s fervent supporters and the proliferation of viral videos and catchy songs are one example and testament to that.
With the key realization that political communication serves the interest of the candidate, while rendering him liable to the public, perhaps we can give more importance to proper communication in our upcoming elections and across the region. Perhaps true and effective political communication can serve as the vehicle to render accountability a practice and an inherent part of the system of values in our regional societies.
Rany Kassab & Ramsay G. Najjar, S2C