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31.10.2008 Social News

A show of substance against populism

By The Statesman

The verdict on the 'winners' and 'losers" of a presidential debate is never just about the candidates' performance on the night, as the media maelstrom following Wednesday evening's IEA encounter makes crystal clear. 

Political commentators and operatives are only too aware that such an event is really a game of expectations rather than execution - and it is whether the candidate is seen to miss, hit or exceed these pre-conceived expectations that is at the heart of post-debate verdicts.

The CPP's presidential candidate, Paa Kwesi Nduom, had received a good deal of praise and acclaim for his performance.

He undoubtedly displayed his skill as a communicator, yet the level of commendation is in part the result of relatively low expectations - or rather more accurately a lower level of speculation and interest in his anticipated performance - heaped upon Dr Nduom prior to the debate in comparison to the candidates for the two largest parties. Against such a backdrop it is, of course, much easier to impress.

The NDC's John Evans Atta Mills also benefitted from relatively low expectations - with some commentators even suggesting that his campaign would benefit just by his turning up and appearing on stage, demonstrating that he is still fit and able!

It is undoubtedly much easier to exceed pre-conceived expectations when these are not very high to begin with; the fact that by general consensus Professor Mills was unable to do so even in such circumstances is quite an indictment.

Conversely Edward Mahama of the People's National Convention perhaps suffered from the fact that he was expected to perform well as a result of being the only candidate to have appeared in a presidential debate before and furthermore having delivered a good - even impressive - performance in that previous debate.

This therefore set a rather higher bar for the PNC candidate than might otherwise have been the case.

In the event the generally negative verdict on Mahama's performance is a reflection not just of a rather lacklustre contribution, but rather that expectations were dashed by his inability to live up to his own previous performance.

Nana Akufo-Addo's strength and experience and his impressive record as both a lawyer and politician also resulted in high expectations.

Most political pundits expected a substantive and eloquent performance from the NPP's flagbearer in last night's public debate.

 This he undoubtedly delivered, showing a firm command of the precise state of the nation's economic, social and political situation (in comparison to clear lapses from the other candidates - for example Mills' erroneous statement that manufacturing contributes 0% to Ghana's GDP).

 He also delivered a clear and comprehensive outline of how his presidency would move Ghana forward in terms of jobs, healthcare and education.

Yet despite this undeniably impressive performance, the acclaim from the political pundits and public was somewhat muted.

Obama comparisons are undoubtedly overused and most of the time they are both unsubstantive and unhelpful.

But the recent American presidential debates do show some of the challenges facing the candidate who is expected beforehand to perform best on the night.

The perceived frontrunner is held to a higher standard than his opponent. Yet whilst simply meeting this high standard is often not seen as sufficient, for them to exceed expectations is twice as hard as for their opponents who are expected to do less well.

The campaign thus faces a strategic choice of whether to try to diminish expectations of their candidate or raise expectations of their opponent.

It is testament to the integrity of Nana Akufo-Addo's presidential bid that the NPP did neither, instead presenting Ghanaians with the weighty, un-spun performance they deserve from a serious contender for the presidency.

It is interesting for a moment to consider what an outside observer with absolutely no preconceptions about any of the candidates would have made of last night's debate.

 Whilst they would have no doubt enjoyed Nduom's oratorical skills, they surely would have been left with the impression that the heavyweight contender, the man who had shown real command of the challenges facing Ghana as well as a detailed understanding of how to address them, was Nana Akufo-Addo.

Of course the NPP's flagbearer was always going to face another challenge which no other candidate is up against, not just in this debate but in the election more widely: combining a clear articulation of the achievements of the NPP government over the last eight years with a powerful enunciation of his vision and programme for the future development of Ghana.

This is vital not only because elections are as much a referendum on the incumbent government as they are a decision about the future, but also because a candidates' vision and policies are entirely meaningless without the ability to deliver them in practice.

Ghanaians are only too aware of the link between the two: if you ask them to say which has the best manifesto, most will immediately reply that it is not simply a question of the best policies but of the ability to translate these policies into action.

Of course neither the CPP nor the PNC candidates can draw on any recent period in government to provide evidence of their ability to deliver, nor does the NDC choose to venture too much into a comparison of records, as John Mahama has himself admitted.

But Ghanaians should and do rightly expect the candidate of the Party which is asking voters to renew its mandate, to demonstrate a record of achievements and accomplishments as testament to its ability to deliver promises and implement its bold and sweeping vision for the future.

The importance of backing up policies with capacity to deliver was illustrated a number of times by Nana Akufo-Addo in yesterday's debate. For example, when speaking to his policies on education, specifically funding the extension of free education to the Senior High School level, the NPP flagbearer was able to tell Ghanaians that in the past eight years the NPP government has doubled the amount of money spent on education, and provided free basic schooling.

Ghanaians know that December's elections aren't just about who has the best 'wish list' but who can make these dreams into reality - which is why it is proper and right that the candidates should demonstrate their credentials and those of their Party.

 It is in fact telling that in yesterday's debate Nana Akufo-Addo was the only one who was able to refer to a track record of success and achievement.

Whilst Dr Nduom harked back to the golden days of the CPP under Nkrumah, Ghanaians cannot be persuaded to believe that today's CPP and its flagbearer can take credit for Nkrumah's accomplishments.

As a final point of speculation, Wednesday night's debate also should perhaps have also prompted us to consider what qualities it is that we really look for and value in the man to whom we are going to entrust the stewardship of our nation.

Around the world there has been a worrying trend in recent times to fail to distinguish between what perhaps makes a good campaigner and what will make a good leader.

Too many electorates have been swept away by catchy rhetoric and charm, persuaded to give their vote to the candidate who appears wittiest or most affable, failing to recognise that these are not the qualities that make a good leader, or make for a successful Presidency.

Dr Nduom last night appeared worryingly like a man who is trying to be all things to all people and whose pronouncements and policies are based on nothing deeper than mass populist appeal.

Perhaps this lack of gravitas, of firm political grounding, should come as no surprise from the man who was a Minister in a free market, centre-right government and who is now standing on the platform of a socialist, far-left party.

But it nevertheless should give pause for thought, and lead Ghanaians to reflect on the substance rather than simply the showmanship displayed in a forum like last night's debate.

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