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- Nature of Electoral Campaigns
- Methods of Electoral Campaigns
- Level Playing Field
- Campaign Finance
- Role of the Media
- Intimidation and Violence
Electoral campaigns are the means by which political parties, alliances, coalitions, and candidates convey their policies and election programs to the electorate in an election contest. Electoral campaigns are essential in a democratic society that holds national and local elections on a periodic basis. International standards governing the environment, conduct, and principles involved in electoral campaigns in democratic elections have evolved over the past several decades.
In order to create an environment conducive to the organization and conduct of free and fair elections, a number of checks and balances have been developed over time to assist parties and candidates in ensuring a level playing field during the campaign period. Similarly, measures have been developed to avoid or reduce the threat of intimidation or violence against candidates, parties, or their supporters. In addition to provisions dealing with election campaigns in the given legal framework, a code of conduct aimed at parties, candidates, and their supporters is often recommended. In a similar vein, a code of conduct to guide the media, particularly the publicly owned media, is always recommended.
Nature of Electoral Campaigns
Many electoral legislative schemes stipulate a fixed period during which electoral campaigning should take place. The stipulated period may range from 14 days to 11 weeks or even longer. The campaign period may be required to end 24 or 48 hours, or even some days, before polling day. The electoral law or the code of conduct for parties, alliances/ coalitions, and candidates sometimes impose penalties for campaigning outside the official designated period.
Electoral campaigns flourish best where there are constitutional guarantees of freedom of association and freedom of speech. These fundamental rights are essential to the electoral campaign environment, as was vividly shown to the world in Zimbabwe’s run-off election in June 2008 when the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, had to withdraw from the contest because of disruption to his campaign rallies, intimidation, and violence against his supporters.
Methods of Electoral Campaigns
There are a number of electoral campaign methods, including rallies, motorcades, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts, debates, party manifestos, advertisements, house-to-house canvassing, and the use of banners, fliers, buntings, billboards, shopping bags, clothing, and theater plays. In many countries, the issuance of permits to hold rallies and motorcades resides with the police authorities, who can act in favor of the ruling party. The issuance of permits to hold rallies or motorcades often operates more smoothly when it is done by the electoral management body in cooperation with the police authorities as in Gambia and Sierra Leone.
Media access, particularly the publicly owned media—electronic and print—is sometimes regulated by specific legislation and/or by a media code designed to regulate election campaign reporting. The publicly owned electronic media may allow free airtime in accordance with an agreed formula (based on equal or equitable or fair allocation free time). In many new and emerging democracies, the public media find it difficult to follow the rules relating to the allocation of free time to the opposition. The private media sometimes enter into voluntary conduct aimed at developing balanced reporting during an electoral campaign, but this approach is not widespread.
The behavior of the media can have a significant impact on leveling the playing field for the contestants in an electoral campaign. Fair access is only one dimension of the media environment. There is also the issue of whether or not the media reports campaign news in a balanced and nonpartisan way and whether misstatements are corrected with equal prominence as the original report.
It is customary for political parties, alliances, coalitions, and candidates, including independent candidates, to publish an election manifesto or platform during the electoral campaign. Such an election manifesto or platform sets out the program that the parties or candidates intend to put across to the voters as the one they would implement if they were elected. This proposition suggests that manifestos in national elections are about issues affecting voters and the country. However, often, perhaps too often, the campaigns are run on the personality of individual candidates rather than the issues raised by the manifestos.
The extent to which a party’s or candidate’s manifesto or platform is binding may be political rather than legal. Parties or candidates who do not honor their manifestos’ pledges may pay a political price at the next election. Of course, these programs may be modified to meet changed circumstances, but such changes should be properly explained to the electorate. There have been cases where elections have been held without political parties, as in Uganda until recently and Swaziland, and there are a number of countries where independent candidates are not allowed to contest elections, as in Tanzania.
The term incumbency refers to the party in power, that is, a party or the parties forming a government at some level or to an individual holding an office. An incumbent authority usually attracts advantages in a campaign by virtue of the office held, unless steps are taken to reduce the incidence of abuse of such an office. To avoid incumbency abuses, some countries, most notably India, have introduced strict measures by way of a code of conduct governing incumbent parties and candidates during electoral campaigns. These measures, for example, restrict the combination of ministerial functions with party political campaigning and forbid the use of public resources for campaign purposes. Bangladesh’s attempt to reduce the influence of incumbency on general elections was to require the government to leave office at the end of its term and turn over the role of government to a caretaker government to oversee the preparation and conduct of the elections. Regrettably, that approach has not worked well and not only has it led to the disintegration of the democratic path to holding elections but also in part has brought down the entire system of democracy and brought in an army-backed regime.
Level Playing Field
The phrase level playing field has taken hold with respect to electoral campaigns and is used to describe the treatment meted out to competing contestants during an electoral campaign. Often, complaints are triggered by stakeholders when they consider that the election environment does not give rise to a level playing field. This situation arises frequently with access to the media and to the use of public resources. The negative aspect of a level playing field sometimes comes into play when the police authorities delay or refuse to grant permits for election rallies.
Dealing with campaign financing may range from no regulation by the state or the election management body (EMB) concerned to tight controls either by the state or by the EMB. Such controls may include limits on maximum expenditure by parties and/or candidates, party-sponsored or independent maximum public contribution, or maximum contribution by individuals or companies. There may also be strict rules governing disclosure of the amount of private contributions received during the electoral campaign. Such disclosure is often open to public scrutiny, and the contributions are subject to audit by reputable auditors. Campaign finance reporting should be required at a stipulated period before and/or after polling day. Failure to meet the stipulated deadline usually incurs significant sanctions, and any material breach of the campaign finance rules may result in forfeiture of the elected office by a successful candidate.
Role of the Media
The media play the most important role in conveying to the electorate the message of parties and candidates. The electronic media has been playing an increasingly prominent role through television, radio, and the Internet (mainly in the developed world). In many new and emerging democracies, the radio has the greatest reach with respect to comprehensive countrywide coverage (although in a few countries even the use of radio batteries during a campaign period have proven to be beyond the means of rural dwellers).
Often, a distinction is made for electoral campaign purposes between publicly and privately owned electronic media. This is because the ruling party frequently influences those public bodies to operate in a partisan manner. This behavior is often mitigated by codes of conduct for the media whereby a schedule for free time broadcast by parties and candidates is regulated by statute or voluntarily. Free time allocation is done by a formula based on fair, equal, or equitable distribution. The basic rule of good practice is that, in addition to fair access to the electronic media, the reporting of election news and the coverage thereof should be balanced.
The print media also play an important role in many campaigns. A similar distinction between public and privately owned print media and code of conduct may be useful in creating a level playing field with respect to access between the ruling party and others. However, in addition to fair access to publicly owned print media, the privately owned media should have access to print paper and to distribution outlets as in normal times outside campaign periods.
The security of party functionaries and candidates is pivotal during the period of election campaigning. Some electoral legislative schemes, supported by codes of conduct for parties, their supporters, and candidates, provide the security framework for election campaigns. Occasionally, security measures that were designed for election campaigns do not follow through to the immediate postpolling period as happened during the postelection violence in Kenya in 2007-2008. Equally disturbing, the election campaign security may break down through the partisan behavior of the security forces either at the instigation of the governing party or with their complicity, as in the run-off presidential election in Zimbabwe in June 2008 between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. Inadequate campaign security in the past, and even recently, as, for example, in December 2007, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a campaign rally in Pakistan, can profoundly and adversely affect election campaigns and may even influence the results. The security forces employed during election campaigns should be properly trained and ensure adequate security to all contestants without partisanship during an election campaign.
Intimidation and Violence
When perpetrated during an election campaign and designed to interfere in any way with an opponent’s legitimate campaign activities, intimidation and violence should be condemned and sanctioned strongly under the election law and/or the code of conduct for parties, their supporters, and candidates. Credible reports by independent election observers, international and domestic, and other stakeholders described a campaign environment in Zimbabwe for the June 2008 run-off presidential elections of relentless and continuing violence and intimidation that resulted in many deaths and injuries. According to many stakeholders, the sustained vicious intimidation and violence directed mainly at supporters of the opposition could be attributed to premeditated planning by the ruling-party to prevent the opposition contesting the runoff elections. Rallies planned by the opposition were either denied the required police permit or, when the required permit was granted, disrupted by ruling-party activities. The consequence of the unlawful acts against the opposition was the withdrawal of their presidential candidate, leaving the incumbent presidential candidate unchallenged at the polls.
In recent years, the spotlight in election organization has been very much on campaigns. This has led to more political parties adhering to codes of conduct and subscribing to greater transparency in campaign financing. The growing acceptance of domestic and international observation at national elections campaigns is enhancing the transparency in election planning and conduct. Notwithstanding the notable improvements being made, certain undesirable practices linger on in emerging democracies in the African Union countries and in countries in Eastern Europe (including Russia) and in central Asia. These undesirable campaign features include undue influence on EMBs, abuse of incumbent advantages, not having a level playing field in respect of access to publicly owned media, and use of public resources by ruling parties.
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