Of Campaigns of Calumny, Monetization and Integrity of our Electoral Democracy

By Victor Agi

The world renown political scientist and communications theorist Harold Lasswell referred to politics as “who gets what, when and how.” Politics for him, is a way of determining, without recourse to violence, who gets power or controls state’s resources, and how they get them.

The “how” in Lasswell’s definition speaks to the place of “influence” in winning elections, and influence is naturally required to wield state power. Two important tools of influence, howbeit unconventional, in politics that further explain how power is captured are money; in which case, we have seen the continuous monetization of the electoral process by the political class. The second tool is to resort to extreme measures to demarket their political opponents hoping that the strategy would increase their own prospects at the poll.

Across the globe, money remains an integral part of democracy, as it is needed to conduct elections, lobby for electoral positions, and actually win elections. This features in advanced, developing and nascent democracies. Indeed, democracy as a system of government whose pillar is electioneering can indeed be expensive. Financial resources are required for the effective functioning of a democratic system. This applies to all systems but more prevalent in the presidential system which involves the conduct of general elections every four years. At every election cycle, politicians under the umbrella of political parties engage in series of activities to convince the populace to vote for their candidates. The logistics and process of campaigning for votes in a presidential election for instance require the use of large sums of money, and this is why measures are provided by laws on fundraising for political office aspirants in all democracies.

Despite the relevance of money in politics, excessive and unregulated use for elections is capable of eroding the integrity of political processes and institutions, jeopardizing the quality of electoral democracy. In the United States for instance, the influence of big donors in the electioneering process continues to be a subject of public conversation, and there are clamors to limit campaign financing, improve transparency, and enforcement of rules. The same is true in South Africa which led to a law requiring the identities of donors. Regulating the spending of the Election Management Body (EMB), political parties and candidates is therefore pertinent for promoting integrity, transparency, and accountability of the democratic process, as unregulated use of money undermines democratic principles, bestows unfair disadvantage on electorates and wrongly modifies their available choices, denying the people quality representatives in the final analysis.

The other unconventional tool of access for people seeking power that has crept into our system is resorting to the use of extreme measures including campaigns of calumny against opposition candidates in order to reduce their electoral value to one’s advantage. Politicians see politics as a game largely driven by personal interest against a call to service. Politicians operating this tool have competitive tendencies, and are as well driven by the urge to occupy political positions in order to control the resources of the state by all means. It’s mostly about access to resources and not for national service. Hence, it’s a political ideology that leans on the ends and not the process.

In the run-up to the 2023 general elections, the political campaigns are already saturated with all kinds of manipulations, fake and unsubstantiated media narratives, and character assassinations to project one candidate as a better choice over the other. Unfortunately, this trend in our political history has shifted our campaigns from an issue-based process to some jamboree gatherings intended to excite supporters and further impoverish the masses through sharing of peanuts to buy over voters.

What do all these mean for the integrity of our electoral democracy and the reputation of the country at large? What happens when any of the frontline candidates accused of corruption emerges as the winner of the election? Although, some of these allegations (whether sponsored or not) must go through the court process before any of the accused can be pronounced guilty, shouldn’t we be wary of the wrong signal electing a candidate being accused of grand corruption sends to the international community?

As a nascent democracy, the integrity of our electoral democracy must guide our politics. Why politicians are at liberty to outwit their opponents, this must be done strictly in the interest of our democratic experience and within the ambit of our laws.  The current campaigns of calumny dominating the electoral themes instead of issue-based campaigns are a dent on the process. We must also continue to interrogate the undue use of money and the weaponization of poverty by moneybag politicians. The 2022 Electoral Act for instance empowers the electoral umpire to place spending limits on electoral offices in section 88, but one can already rightly guess that there is a clear disregard for this portion of our laws, given what was reported during the primary elections of the major political parties.

Political actors must recognize that great democracies thrive on transparency and accountability of institutions; hence, politicians must know that they have moral and legal obligations to disclose their sources of electoral financing and abide by the spending limit provided in the electoral act. For instance, the Center for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch (CeFTIW) Electoral Financing campaign seeks to promote transparency of the process by requesting candidates to disclose their sources of campaign funding so Nigerians can trust their candidacy, however, despite severally reaching out, none of the top candidates has responded, and clearly shows disregard for processes that can promote the integrity of our electoral democracy.

Actors must at the back of their minds that they have a country to govern after the elections. The choices they make in their desperation to clinch elective positions have consequences on the country as a whole. Citizens must also team up and support processes that will preserve our democracy from power grabbers.

Victor Agi is the head of Public Relations at the Center for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch, and a Public Affairs Analyst

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