Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Playing the numbers game to effect

In an article published yesterday, Daily Monitor's Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi looks at how candidates are pulling out all the stops on the campaign trail.

Who is attracting more crowds and who is actually meeting more people? And out of this, what translates into real votes? This is the debate consuming major political camps in the 2011 presidential race. The same debate first emerged during the 2001 elections after President Museveni’s camp, facing a surprise candidate in Dr Kizza Besigye spent weeks arguing about the crowd Mr Museveni pulled into Kololo Independence Grounds for his post nomination speech and official campaign launch.
Mr Museveni claimed that 1.5 million people attended the rally. Reacting to a Daily Monitor story then that put the crowd at 35,000 people, he said, “After reading The Monitor story that 35,000 people attended my nomination, using the distance between the roads surrounding Kololo Airstrip, I have since measured that 1.5 million people attended in my support,” Sunday Monitor of January 22, 2001 quoted Museveni as saying.

He claimed to supporters at the then Nile International Conference Centre that he had calculated the length of the Kololo Airstrip which he found was 800 metres by 300 metres, adding that assuming that one person occupied one foot then 1.5 million people attended. Norbert Mao, then an MP but now a candidate accused the Movement camp of ferrying supporters.

In the 2006 elections the same debate again emerged. A story is told of how President Museveni almost slapped an aide after all that appeared on the cover pages of both Sunday Monitor and Sunday Vision was himself and about two other people wearing dry banana leaves (essanja) the then campaign symbol.

Newspapers, both private and government controlled, were subjected to intense pressure to ‘find better pictures’ of the crowds. 2011 is different. Mr Museveni has been pictured addressing crowds. Asked if the President’s camp was happy, Mr Museveni’s political assistant and campaign strategist Moses Byaruhanga said, “very much. Many organise [to attend] on their own but we help them a bit.”

Like Camp Besigye, Camp Otunnu seems to be aiming at addressing “people of conviction” than seas of people that may not necessarily translate into votes. Both Mr Otunnu and Dr Besigye are being seen with patients in hospitals or with impoverished peasants in their dwellings.

Camp Besigye says they believe their strategy is working. “We designed it [in such away] that it is better to appear in as many places as possible and have one major rally in an area and we think it is working effectively,” said Augustine Ruzindana, a strategist in the Besigye campaign.

Mr Ruzindana says they are aware of the psychological games the Museveni camp is trying to play with the numbers. “Crowds are psychological but they only play for those who have TV and can read newspapers,” he said.

According to sources close to the Museveni campaign, the strategy for 2011 was drawn to influence a critical section of the voting population -- young people who constitute the largest voter segment. To this group, image is everything and the media is of critical significance. Larger than life posters of Museveni dot even the most obscure spots of city and other urban areas. The camp has even erected giant posters on the road leading from the only airport in the country at Entebbe.

To assure attendances at rallies, the Museveni campaign has assembled whole bands of popular national musicians. What the TV crews and photographers are not capturing in the pictures at President Museveni’s rallies are the concerts that are actually taking place on location.

Mr Byaruhanga defends this saying the musicians are not pre-advertised to influenced the people, but it is a fact that in every town where his candidate is going to be, trucks loaded with music equipment first make the rounds in towns announcing the free entertainment.

A report by the Democracy Monitoring Group (DEMgroup) released two weeks ago said people were being driven to Museveni campaign venues in some cases with local leaders using government vehicles to ferry them from villages to towns. There have been reports of individuals being paid.

The Besigye camp is supplementing its main rallies with a series of mini-rallies to ‘introduce’ their candidate to as many people as possible in a version of what the Americans call “press the flesh” events. It is also about image-changing from the media projection of him as “an angry man.”

Dr Besigye and Mr Otunnu seem to be following a similar strategy, getting very personal opportunities to explain to ordinary voters “the deception of progress, peace and tranquillity,” that Museveni lays claim to having established.

Another critical decision the various camps have had to deal with is where to start the campaign and where to end it. In 2006 President Museveni held a major rally in Gulu. His camp celebrated, but shortly after, Dr Besigye went to Gulu and seemed to attract even larger crowds, forcing Mr Museveni to return to the region.

Before the launch of the current campaign, Museveni strategists, who anticipated that he would reap from the end of the war and the return of peace up north were keen to start him in the area long seen as most hostile to him. This, his handlers believed, would work to rally President Museveni’s base especially in the west following a difficult relationship with Buganda and overtures by both prominent Baganda and the opposition to project his diminished influence in the region. A better showing in the north was a must.

Dr Besigye instead chose Bunyoro and Tooro, areas where Museveni is seen to be still strongest. With the President detached from the crowds partly by his security and Dr Besigye, Otunnu and the other candidates freely mixing with the voters, strategists are beginning to ask who is actually winning. Does it make better sense to gather 20,000 people in one ground and assume you have spoken to the people or meet thousands in more than two or three places?

And in Dr Besigye’s camp, the question is: does meeting people directly mean his message is penetrating especially as he gets shut off radio stations? DP’s Mao is using rally style on the trail as is Jaberi Bidandi Ssali of the PPP. Dr Abed Bwanika has seen his numbers significantly increase after clashes with the police in Masaka and Lira.

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