Can civil society influence elections?

It’s a question asked by activists around the world: how to influence politicians and their election pledges? Here, Awa Faly Ba and Jérôme Gérard share lessons from West Africa.

West African electoral issues tend to be based on politicians’ agendas rather than on what voters see as critical priorities. However, over the past few years, West African civil society organisations (CSOs) have managed to influence electoral processes by organising national and local debates on priority themes; demanding firm commitments from political parties in their election manifestos.

Did you know, for instance, that all ten parties that ran in the Sierra Leone 2012 general elections had signed a pledge card committing them to the four main asks of the WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) manifesto?

1,483 individual pledge cards were signed by candidates… from all political parties.

The pledge cards and manifesto were organised by WASH-net Sierra Leone, the leading national CSO advocacy platform on this issue. As a result of intense lobbying and awareness-raising activities organised through WASH Election Forums held in each of the 14 districts across Sierra Leone, an impressive 1,483 individual pledge cards were signed by candidates ranging from those running for parliament, to those running for district council chair and mayoral positions, with representation from all political parties. Out of this
total, 326 candidates were elected in the 2012 elections and could thus be held accountable to their pledges. 

The WASH Manifesto generated wide media interest and the campaign benefited from extensive media coverage including television, newspapers, radio, social media, and online publications, reaching nearly five million Leonians. This helped raise the profile, visibility and prioritisation of WASH issues, and contributed to the creation of a separate Ministry for Water Resources in the aftermath of the elections.

In Ghana, at the end of November 2012, 300 women participated in Health Walks, marching on the headquarters of the main political parties in Accra to influence the drafting of each party’s election manifesto. Their goal was to get representatives from political parties to sign a campaign pledge card committing to deliver universal health care. The three main parties received framed pledge cards to be hung in their headquarters. 

Still in Ghana, the Peasant Farmer’s Association of Ghana set the stage for farmers’ to articulate their concerns in the 2012 general elections and beyond through a common set of demands for the achievement of food security. On 23 August 2012, farmers across the country launched “The Farmers Manifesto for Election 2012 and Beyond: Making Agricultural Policies Work for Smallholder Farmers in Ghana”. For the first time in the history of Ghana, farmers documented their concerns and offered
solutions and policy recommendations for government and political office seekers to engage with. The manifesto provided presidential and parliamentary candidates with an agenda once they are elected. also It also ensured political party accountability as candidates would ultimately be assessed on the basis of where they stood in relation to issues that concerned women and men small-scale farmers as outlined in the manifesto.

All these campaigns aimed to support and empower citizens and community groups to demand their rights and to hold public officials to account, combining new strategies with traditional methods.

How efficient were these strategies? What conditions and contexts allowed for the most effective mechanisms to advance long-term success by CSOs in influencing the political commitments and programmes of political parties during election campaigns?

To find out, Oxfam commissioned the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana) to conduct a comparative study analysing the critical elements of CSO engagement with political parties, as a way to increase our understanding of a subject, about which there is very little pre-existing documentation, particularly concerning West Africa.

You can read this report here: Civil Society Engagement with Political Parties During Elections: Lessons from Ghana and Sierra Leone

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Download the report: Civil Society Engagement with Political Parties During Elections: Lessons from Ghana and Sierra Leone

Author: Awa Faly Ba Mbow
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.