Conceding defeat sign of maturity

HARARE - Conceding defeat sign of maturityIf someone were to embark on a project to compile the concession speeches of defeated African presidential candidates into a book, that person would rapidly run out of data.

This is because in many African countries dictatorships and one-party rule are so entrenched that losing elections is an alien and unacceptable concept to be avoided at any cost.

It is regarded as a humiliating loss of face and an attack on the personal honour of self-anointed life presidents.

As a result, the continent has incumbent presidents who have not lost elections in three to four decades and have  never had to concede defeat. Opposition parties caught up in these repressive scenarios do not have a chance in a million to bring about power transfers.

They are condemned to perpetual “defeats” in polls often independently declared by observers’ not to be free and fair.

The post-election speeches of such opposition presidential candidates are therefore mostly a bitter recounting of the unfair electoral laws, irregularities, violence, intimidation, harassment and arrest of themselves and their supporters which skew polls in favour of the incumbents.

Taking the law of averages and the rise and fall of political tides into account, it is impossible for one party and one candidate to remain popular for 30 to 40 years.

The reality is that the strongmen of Africa stay in power by fraudulent and violent means while pretending to be lawfully elected. This is why there are always bitter post-election disputes when those who forcibly cling to power  claim they are mandated by the electorate each time they rig an election.

There have been a few exceptions and surprises recently when losing incumbent heads of state have done the honourable thing by graciously accepting their fate and facilitating a seamless power transfer.

Zambia’s immediate past president, Rupiah Banda won widespread praise and admiration with his speech conceding defeat to Michael Sata last year.

An even bigger surprise was the statesman-like conduct of Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade after he was voted out of power earlier this year. The electorate gave the presidential mandate to opposition leader Macky Sall.

Wade’s prompt defeat concession speech was the more remarkable in view of the fact that he had tenaciously tried every trick in the book including changing laws on presidential term limits, to remain in power.

Whether his actions mean that Africans can dare to hope that other continental political leopards can, after all, change their spots too, remains to be seen.  

Elections in other parts of the world have shown that losing is not the end of the world. Rather than representing humiliation and belittlement, conceding defeat and relinquishing power to allow others to receive the leadership baton is a sign of both personal and political maturity and greatness.

More importantly it is a sign of patriotism that subordinates personal pride and vanity to national interests and aspirations.

It facilitates a smooth transition that enables a country to move forward instead of being mired in destructive conflict and stagnation. Alas, the fact that a regular change  of guard is a natural part of the democratic process and cycle is a lesson many African dictators have yet to learn.

The principle of accepting the verdict delivered by the electorate is important even when an opposition candidate loses as demonstrated when Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in the American presidential elections last week.

American elections are always fiercely contested and being a candidate is a huge undertaking. Candidates invest  massively in terms of time devoted to campaigning all over the vast country and preparedness to submit to relentless, microscopic media scrutiny.

Big money goes into these campaigns but at the end of the day only one of the two main contenders wins and the other has to swallow the bitter pill of defeat.

An American political tradition that has evolved over many years and which other democracies throughout the world have adopted, dictates that the loser publicly concede defeat and call his victorious rival to congratulate him.

It is an important rite in that it reaffirms acknowledgement of the principle of the supremacy of the electorate. This is what Romney did. Interestingly, American media were awash with commentaries on whether the losing Republican candidate’s speech was gracious enough, with some saying it was grudging.

The bottom line, however, is that he was big enough to accept the verdict of the American people.

The media frenzy over the tone of his concession speech was ironic because there are countries, including ours, where even  a losing candidate’s grudging acknowledgement of the people’s verdict would be a huge step forward.

Accepting defeat is even more imperative when an incumbent loses.

This was amply illustrated in recent presidential elections held in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The incumbent, Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2004 following the so-called Rose Revolution that led to the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze.

Over the eight years of his tenure, Saakashvili was accused of having developed dictatorial tendencies and heading an administration that turned  a blind eye  towards corruption. There were fears of a bitter post-election dispute if Saakashvili chose to cling to power.

But when he lost the contest to his billionaire rival, Saakashvili wasted no time in conceding defeat and pledging his cooperation  in facilitating a smooth handover of power.

He spoke of his “respect towards the decision of the majority” despite the fact that there were differences between  his United National Movement and the victorious Georgian Dream.

“There are very deep differences between us and we believe that their views are extremely wrong but democracy works in a way that Georgian people make decisions by majority”, Saakashvili said.

With Zimbabwe planning elections next year, this is an example of some of the lessons local political leaders  need to heed.

One main one is that political opponents are not enemies but compatriots who are as entitled as the incumbents to govern if the people choose them. The nation is always bigger than the individual and the party. Elections are irrelevant if the will of the voting majority  is going to be disregarded.

In this sense, the philosophy of “might makes right” that manifests itself in the use of force to intimidate and  coerce the electorate to vote only one way  is totally misplaced and must be rejected.

Even the party with the most revolutionary policies and ideas must bow down to  the will of the people if they choose to vote for something different in free and fair elections. - Mary Revesai

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