National Democratic Congress supporters (left) and New Patriotic Party supporters at separate rallies of their parties
National Democratic Congress supporters (left) and New Patriotic Party supporters at separate rallies of their parties
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The Perils of partisan politics

The Democracy Project I lead uses an analytical tool we developed to help structure our democracy dialogues series with stakeholders.

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 The tool (Democracy Balance Sheet) urges stakeholders to reflect on the current state of Ghana’s democracy in terms of assets and liabilities and produce a final assessment of whether we have more assets than liabilities. 

In completing the exercise, I put partisanship down as a liability. Let me state that partisanship is an inevitable by-product of democratic politics.

Democracies, with political parties and regularly held competitive elections, produce among many things, partisans– people who become aligned with a particular political party in the democratic space.

In fact, with political parties as the central organising force around which elections are contested, the system will surely produce partisans. And as my dear mother once said to me, “no political party can survive without a core group of partisans who give it their full devotion.”

In principle, I do not take issues with political alignment and partisanship. It is how we activate our partisan feelings as part of our democratic politics that gives me regular worries.

Why is partisanship a liability?

I have regularly expressed concerns about the level of trust in our public institutions and the growing perceptions of corruption.

This is further exacerbated by the extent to which our trust and perceptions is shaped by our partisan attachments. Take the issue of trust for example. We often express greater levels of trust in key public institutions when one’s preferred political party is in power. 

And when it comes to corruption, we tend to perceive its occurrence more when one’s preferred political party is in opposition but less when in opposition. In such an environment, how do we secure a sense of the collective and address our institutional challenges? In the meantime, failure to do so potentially causes permanent damage to the very institutions that are critical to our quest for good governance and development. 

How we treat national issues and whether they are of concern or not is shaped by our partisan feelings.

When you treat national issues this way, we fail to learn the good governance lessons that are supposed to be learned from the missteps of public officials and authorities. These missteps may be intentional or unintentional but nonetheless do offer a blueprint for good governance.

I am not arguing here that partisans do not care about the nation. What I am trying to point out is that whatever the case may be, national issues, in my opinion, must be seen to transcend all peculiar partisan interests.

The nation must be seen to be larger than the political party and not the other way round.  

Several months ago, I drew attention to the cost of active citizenship and pointed out that partisans do impose a burden and cost on their fellow citizens without sometimes realising it.  For these citizens, active and engaged citizenship is sometimes seen as an attempt to discredit their side of the political aisle.

In response, there is always a concerted effort to discredit, not the message, but the messenger. Additionally, such active citizens’ motives are questioned. In such an environment, again, what incentives do citizens have to become active in public spaces?

At the same time, without active citizenship, how do public officials get to know the pinch points of citizens and what to do about them?

The president, in his Independence Day address, bemoaned the quality of our public discourse and how dissent is handled in the process. The president had his pulse right on a worrying feature of the way we engage our fellow citizens in public spaces.

What even makes the president’s observation more worrying is the sharpened partisan tone of our public discourse. Our conversations in the public square quickly breaks down along partisan lines which further dictates how we treat dissenting voices in the process. That treatment, I must say, is not the most pleasant to observe.

The way forward

The response to a public square where citizens exhibit sharpened partisan edges requires voices that act as moderators. These moderating voices can help their fellow citizens meander their way through the fierce banter of partisans.

These moderating voices can also help keep our public discourse focused on the implications of emerging issues for the nation and its key institutions of governance. 

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As I have previously mentioned, partisanship is an inevitable by-product of multiparty democratic politics. Unless we remove political parties, which I will not recommend, as a core part our democratic politics there will always be partisanship.

But this reality comes with its own perils. Which is why the public space cannot be ceded to our duopoly to engage in a repeated cycle of partisan banter on matters of national concern.

The writer is the Project Director, Democracy Project.

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