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Learning Note 6: “Politicians all make the same promises”: Citizen perspectives on politics from a qualitative study (part 2)

Guest post by Leah R. Rosenzweig & Lily L. Tsai, Governance Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This is a second post in a two-part series, describing the perspectives gathered through qualitative formative research, undertaken jointly by Twaweza and MIT’s GOV/LAB (see the first post here). The insights presented in this post have already shaped Twaweza’s thinking around what kind of initiatives we want to undertake. As the national election date (25th October) approaches, the atmosphere is already charged and exciting. Our wish is to contribute to meaningful, evidence-based discussions of core issues of national interest (e.g., in key public services such as health and education), because we believe this will contribute to Tanzanian citizens making informed choices. 

As described in the previous blog post (“The Research Design”) we set out to investigate three questions related to Tanzanian citizens’ perspectives on politics. In this post we highlight the collective and individual responses we gathered from citizens around Tanzania.

1. How do ordinary citizens see politics and government?

“Politics” is a word that has a very negative connotation for most citizens.  Most citizens express deep distrust of politicians and say that they are not interested in politics. Our RA reports reveal that 37 respondents (43.5% of interviewees) hold a negative view of the government, while 42.4% of interviewees have a positive view of the government.

Many citizens we interviewed feel ignored by the government. For some this is intentional marginalization while others feel simply forgotten. “They [the government] forget us,” said a 27-year-old artisan in Arusha.  This sentiment of marginalization leads people to believe that citizens must struggle to provide for themselves, rather than rely on the government. A taxi driver in Morogoro stated that “our government here do[es] not care about us poor people and [does not] work for all people in our country. I can’t say it’s bad for all; it [is] more sound and good to rich people and leaders who have [a] good position, but not for normal citizens like me here.”  There is a sense that projects to help ordinary people are a thing of the past. Many citizens have completely lost faith in the government and believe it is only there to serve the people on the inside.  To illustrate this point, citizens cite, for example, how fertilizer subsidies are not reaching farmers and how government loans are unavailable to regular citizens because of patronage and corruption.

Past experience and interactions with the government also influence current perceptions of its performance. One market woman in Arusha does “not see anything wrong with the government,” citing the newly constructed market for which the city council government allocated the space and citizens could apply for stalls. Presumably, because of this, she believes that “the city council really cares.”  Another woman is now fearful of the government because city officials confiscated the vegetables from her informal fruit stand. Because it is difficult to reach national government officials, citizen attitudes are most likely a function of interactions with local officials, bureaucrats, and the police. 

2. What do citizens think of as engagement and participation?

Citizens see voting as the main opportunity to engage with the government because it is one of few actions that is encouraged and officially sanctioned by the government.  Citizens repeatedly mentioned several motivations for voting in elections. In no particular order, the top five answers to the question “why do you vote” are the following:
1) It is my right/responsibility
2) To pick good leaders
3) To achieve change
4) For peace and stability
5) To punish bad leaders

Although we have a good sense of the common reasons citizens verbalize for voting, there are likely underlying motivations that people are not able to consciously observe or articulate. Through our in-depth interviews, we came to understand some of these unspoken, or implicit, motivations that structure political participation in Tanzania. For example, social pressure from their communities and networks plays a significant role in driving the decision to vote, especially among poorer citizens. In particular, there appears to be a social norm around voting for poor citizens. The rich seem much less likely to vote (and this is empirically corroborated national survey data from Afrobarometer). Many citizens derive social status from voting and are punished, for instance by being prohibited from complaining about the government, if they abstain.

Political participation among poorer Tanzanian citizens predominantly takes the form of voting, with attending campaign rallies serving as a secondary form of participation. It is very rare that citizens contact government officials to complain about a specific issue, and the opportunity for citizens to engage with elected officials, particularly outside of campaign season, is very low. People also express fear and uncertainty about engaging in other forms of political behavior such as questioning officials at meetings or contacting representatives.

The average Tanzanian citizen feels as if the government is very far away. People often laugh when you ask them if they have seen their MP around, or if they have contacted their ward councilor. One young man in Arusha stated, “No way do young people interact with government.”  One man in Morogoro made this point even more strongly, stating that “even if you vote, [the officials] do not care about us once they are elected…After the election they normally run to Dar es Salaam, leaving their people being suffering with problems.”  Additionally, a vendor in Mbeya explained that even when the local officials are in town, it is very difficult to speak with them. Not only do the local officials leave after the election, but they also do not honor appointments made during election season. It seems as if the only people who do question and interact with local officials are those with education and influence in the community.

Using hypothetical scenarios in a game setting with young Tanzanians we came to understand that even university-educated students are unlikely to take any stand against government. In one scenario we told students that they interviewed for a police post but discover the position was already filled and relatives of the current administrator were posted. However, the student is offered a secretarial position but at the same time sees on television that the government is requesting witnesses to come forward with testimony about this incident. When asked what they would do in this situation most students said they would do nothing and continue with the secretarial post. One student advised, “Just don’t go – because even if you testify, nothing will happen, because this is just how the system is.” Another stated, “Job first, patriotism later.”

In another scenario, we told the student she is a fruit vendor and the city council has overnight destroyed her stand and told her she cannot sell in this place anymore. One student reacted by saying, “I’ll be very mad, I’ll never understand, but I will accept.  I’ll try to figure something out, life will go on.” The general feeling is that individual citizens are powerless. Another said, “This is the government, you cannot sue it. You cannot do anything because this is the government.”  Therefore, citizens do not see themselves as the ones to engineer change for the country. Instead citizens see their role as participating in elections through voting to assist in determining the future of their country. When discussing government's disregard of citizens he said: "Urging the government to do things is a failed ideology, we just need a leader who when he sees people suffer or called to attend an issue, he will listen and work with people to solve issues."

3. How do ordinary citizens interact with parties and political elites?

Many citizens see their support for political parties as supporting a team.  Support of their party seems to be a core part of their identity, and support is given relatively uncritically or unconditionally.  As a result, few citizens seem to pay close attention to the content of campaigns when determining whom to elect to office. 

All political parties engage in making promises, which are often concrete, related to specific development projects, and quite similar.  Out of our 85 RA interviews, 26 (31%) mentioned specific promises candidates in their communities had made during the election. While some citizens say that campaign promises help them decide whom to elect, many citizens report that politicians all make the same promises and cannot be trusted to keep these.

Some citizens suggest that it is the way a politician makes a promise and how they behave – rather than the content of the promise – that is a better signal of their future performance. Campaign promises to a certain extent for many citizens also serve as a signal of candidate type.  When asked how they distinguish a candidate who will be a good leader in office citizens mention that they listen to how the candidate speaks—not just how articulate they are but also the substance of their promises. Many citizens referred to the process of selecting a candidate as a “guessing game” because it is so hard to tell how candidates will perform, which ones—if any—will uphold their promises, once in office.

It is not evident exactly how citizens respond to a failure to honor promises made during the campaign season. Some citizens say they would simply not vote in the future because candidates don’t honor their promises, and therefore campaigns are meaningless propaganda,  while some say that they will switch parties if they believe that the candidate is not behaving as promised during election season.

The opposition parties’ role in government extends beyond competing in elections. They serve to invigorate political participation in Tanzania, and to act as a watchdog to criticize the ruling party and increase the CCM’s accountability to its citizens. One woman in Mbeya told us that previously she was uninformed about and disengaged with politics, but that “many parties have opened up our eyes.”  We have heard from several citizens that the presence of multiple political parties has given individuals greater choice for their country’s political future.  Although some people were initially hesitant, the general perspective is summed up by the quote of one woman, who said that “I’ve learned that many parties can be our voice—help us see things differently.” 

It remains to be seen how exactly all of these sentiments, behaviors, and interactions will play out in the upcoming national elections. As much as our fieldwork shed light on many interesting questions, it also raised several more. For example, are the explicit motivations of “right” and “responsibility” driving high turnout rates in Tanzania or do social pressures and norms play an equally large role in motivating voting behavior? Another question moving forward as political competition increases in Tanzania is how to motivate a generally disengaged population? How can we inspire individual and collective action among wananchi who feel generally powerless, ignored, and afraid?

At Twaweza, this last question kept us thinking, going back to the drawing board, abandoning some of our early ideas, and finally settling on promoting substance-rich debates by all main parties. You can follow this work on https://twitter.com/mkikimkiki . On the research side, the collaboration with GOV/LAB is at a really exciting stage, with various strands of quantitative and qualitative components currently unfolding alongside the debates, as well as further afield, across the country. We want to know, for instance, if the debates influence how viewers think about the issues presented, and the different parties. We also want to know if exposure to increased information on relevant issues (through debates, but also through other means) is associated with promoting substantive discussion among Tanzanian citizens. Further writing – on design and results – will be posted here in the future.


 

Read more: Dar es salaam elections learning learning note MIT politics

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