Do crowds at rallies win elections?

Hope Nyambe

Once again, the prehistoric political ritual of holding grandeur rallies before presidential elections is upon us. From the introduction of multi party democracy in 1991, rallies for presidential election are growing bigger with no expense spared. Both the Patriotic Front (PF) and the United Party for National Development (UPND) launched their rallies on the same day, with the former launching in Kitwe and the latter in Lusaka. There has been a brewing argument among various sectors in society on which rally was more successful.

With unconfirmed reports estimating nearly 100,000 people at the PF rally at Heroes Stadium, numerically, it’s arguable to say the PF rally was more successful. The number of people that attended the rally is a land mark standard by itself. However, the attendance has been clouded with accusation of the ruling party transporting people from other towns, and the allure of having some of Zambia’s top musicians perform at the rally.

It is however also arguable to say that the UPND’s rally was more successful than the PF’s rally by virtue that the UPND took a politically bold move to launch their campaigns on the copperbelt, historically a PF stronghold. Going by the voting patterns in the last presidential elections, the UPND could have arguably taken a safer option of launching their campaigns in the southern province, drawing numbers equalling the PF rally. My borne of contention however is not the success of either rallies. It is whether the crowd size can be used to gauge a candidate’s or party’s winning prospects?

Historically across the continent inclusive of Zambia, the size of rallies has long been a flawed measure of a campaigns verve or prospect of a candidate or party winning an election. Former presidents Dr Kaunda and Rupiah Banda will attest that large crowds at their rallies at the time they lost elections were simply smoke screens. Firstly, there are major deceptions on the actual number or size of the crowd at rallies. In an age of creative Photoshop artists and biased media editorials, it actually difficult to gauge not only the actual size of the crowd but also the popularity of the rally. The media in particular will cover a rally depending on the editorial policy of that particular media house. For instance, the Post Newspaper, Times of Zambia or Daily mail will chose to only cover particular aspects of the rally that suits their respective agendas and sponsors.

Secondly, there is a growing trend of transporting cadres from various locations to attend rallies in areas that they do not have electoral eligibility or interest. This is one of the reasons that has led to rallies being expensive and time intensive. Political and non political cadres are enticed with monetary gifts and alcohol to attend rallies in far off places where they do not even have interest in the areas development agenda. In poor communities, free money and alcohol is simply irresistible, not to mention the entertainment at these rallies. Such rallies are indicative of neither a party’s popularity nor a reflection of the political demographics of the city in which the rally is being held. They mean nothing apart from the party or candidates ability to sponsor a large crowd on a given day.

It would therefore be a folly for any party or political candidate to get overly gexcited with numbers they attract at their rallies. What the politicians should hope for, is that their rallies energize their supporters and generate a buzz. An energised fan base is more likely to reach more people through influencing their own families, friends and neighbours. They should also hope that their rallies create ‘trends’ within social media platforms which are much more reliable at recruiting swing voters and those not yet decided on who to vote for.

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