Partisanship is usually listed among the issues derailing Ghana’s march to development. And in truth, it is sometimes amusing to see how minds can change on issues depending on the position of a political party on it. This type of alignment of public opinion to the views of political parties is more remarkable because of the ideological flipflopping of the two major political parties.
It appears then that rather than ideology there is a case of trust and mistrust that exists between sections of the population and political parties. People just tend to trust one party more than the other and the reasons for this would be discussed in another post. My focus is on analysing the role that partisanship plays in our politics and the importance of that role.
We must first acknowledge that our political set up is one designed to over-reward the winner and over-penalise the loser. This is one of the causes of extreme partisanship. The candidate who gets more than 50% of the votes in the presidential election is awarded a wide-range of powers of appointment and significant control over how the resources of the country will be applied. What this does is potentially exclude a significant proportion of voters from feeling represented by government. They cannot even elect the District Chief Executive who could have provided them with a feeling of having some representation at a district level. Of course, parliamentary oversight can serve as a check on these powers but until we have different parties controlling the executive and parliament we will not see the checking of these powers in practice. With this type of political system, it is going to be difficult to reduce the incidence of partisanship.
So is partisanship a good or bad force in our society, politics and governance? That is hard to say. In the first place there is simply no other force that promotes accountability as much as political expediency. The media, civil society and the judiciary play their parts but nothing keeps a government on its toes more than an organised opposition party. The constant reminder that there is an alternative is the greatest motivation for any party to fulfill its obligations. The threat that members of a party would be prosecuted when another party comes into office is the greatest motivation for party members not to engage in corruption.
And this accountability goes both ways. As the failures of a government is revealed and publicised by an opposition party, the failures of the opposition party are also revealed and publicised by a ruling party. It is a self-regulating political system fueled by the drive for political power.
Also the importance of partisanship is felt in issues that are non-partisan. Examples include environmental degradation, the state of mental healthcare, LGBT rights, women’s representation and the election of DCEs. The status quo in these issues will continue because parties are unwilling to turn performance there into a major standard of competence. That is one reason why I sometimes support the politicisation of issues. It appears issues that are not politicised simply do not receive as much attention. I believe that there is a direct link between progress on these issues and the absence of significant partisan wrangling on the discussion of these issues.
So what then are the downsides of partisanship? One frequent claim is that it leads people to be hypocritical – criticising one party for doing something and giving the other party a pass on the same thing. That may be true, but having a partisan society means that there is always a group to point out failure. The praise-singers and the critics alternate positions. For everyone letting something pass, there is someone criticising it.
Another criticism of partisanship is that it leads people to wish failure for the country. Is this true or not? I cannot claim to know but I think at any giving time there are already several failures that can be pointed to without the wish for more. The issue of mistrust and our winner-takes-all political systems does cause people to feel that they are not represented by a government but there are few issues in the fourth republic I can think of where opposing the views or actions of a political party in a given situation was tantamount to opposing the progress of the nation.
Perhaps the most valid criticism of partisanship is that it is easily exploited by the very parties it holds accountable. The political class exploits partisanship to get support for actions that only benefit them. Politicians get support for policies, statements and actions which might not have been possible had people not had affinities to their parties. Policy failures are defended, indefensible statements and actions are justified. It is no wonder that conspiracy theorists believe that there is a secret understanding among the political class to trump up partisanship as a means to keeping the people divided while they benefit.
In the end I cannot call partisanship either a fully good or bad force. What I am certain of is that it is a force and it is going nowhere. Attempts at dismantling partisanship must take our political set up into consideration. In the meantime we will have to give partisanship its due by acknowledging its effectiveness in promoting accountability.