By MUBANGA LUCHEMBE
The Patriotic Front leaders did not mince their words. They rejected the just-ended Kabwata parliamentary by-election’s results, alleging that the elections were not free and fair citing widespread intimidation, violence and manipulation.
Accordingly, the former ruling party embarked on compiling evidence and consulting lawyers on the next course of action.
Given that basic trust in UPND politicians and their newly-elected government is regarded as fundamental to democratic practices – the accusations had deep resonance nationwide.
Nevertheless, political cynicism had emerged with some strength within Kabwata constituency in particular, and across the country in general.
The UPND politicians despite their questionable campaign promises had shown a form of political cynicism and ostensibly eschewed themselves from being essentially viewed as insincere and ultimately untrustworthy.
They wondered if Kabwata’s voting public shared that view. Clearly though, when addressing the topic of trust and politics, it’s important to recognise (as with many topics regarding trust) that it’s multi-levelled.
The multiple levels of trust and politics reflect variations from dimensions of specificity (specific to general) and familiarity (somewhat familiar to very familiar).
Trust in a leader, such as a president, is different from trust in the leader’s political party – a more general and unfamiliar target. After all, people’s trust in government as a system is different from their trust in a currently-elected government – a more specific and familiar target.
Aside from being multi-levelled, it’s important to highlight that there are problems in assessing trust in politics because of the reliance on the term “trust” and yet-to-be fulfilled campaign promises.
The question now being asked by many is whether UPND bigwigs must get worried with the Kabwata by-election results as the ruling party’s popularity has seemingly started declining as evidenced by its unexpected poor performance in the February 3 by-election.
Decline of trust is not uniform in all constituencies, but, if you ask people whether they trust politicians, the answer is likely to be negative, even in constituencies like Kabwata. Furthermore, its voter turnout in the by-election was in decline – another symptom of distrust.
But, if constituents lack political trust, then they lack the foundation on which to negotiate collectively any sustainable solutions to their most urgent problems.
In general, people who vote are more likely to express higher levels of trust in politicians and in government. But some may vote to defeat a candidate or party regarded as untrustworthy (on an “anyone but” basis) while others may not bother voting because they are highly, if not naively, trusting.
In any political system, it’s not prudent to trust completely, however. We have constitutional checks and balances precisely because we trust no one at all with absolute and unaccountable powers.
In a democracy, whether one votes or not, we have little choice but to entrust a relatively small number of representatives with powers to pass laws and to govern, but we are not called on to abandon scepticism or to have blind faith.
The big issue, though, is how to develop greater trustworthiness in the individuals whom we do elect, and how to build greater popular trust in decision-making systems, even when we disagree openly and strongly over particular concerns.
Trust is not a thing that one can literally build, break and then rebuild. Political leaders cannot simply approve a policy and a budget to rebuild trust in the way that we rebuild worn-out infrastructure.
If we demand trust from people, they are likely to react with scepticism.
Political and economic systems that are “rigged” (when they produce unfair outcomes or are downright corrupt) are unlikely to be trusted, moreover.
Many people in affluent countries are finding that hard work for long hours is not providing a standard of living sufficient to achieve reasonable life goals.
Electoral systems often deliver disproportionate results. Politicians across the political divide attack one another for short-term gain rather than work for the people’s good.
Reducing economic inequality and reforming electoral systems or campaign finance laws may help to address the problem of political trust
But there is a deeper “bootstraps” problem, as it takes political trust to gain the consensus to take the actions needed for such significant reforms.
It takes trust to build trust. It would be morally unacceptable, however, to give up on the project of restoring political trust on the grounds that it’s too hard.
We need first to understand clearly the kinds of actions entailed in trustworthy conduct – for example, abstaining from taking advantage of the vulnerable, paying heed to people’s complaints, promising no more than one can deliver. If we adopt these characteristics in our own behaviour, then we are in a much better position to expect them of others.
Beyond individual conduct, we need to examine carefully our economic and political systems. The nation will never be perceived by all as completely fair. But the difficult task of restoring political trust is inextricably entwined with the tasks of critically reflecting on our own behaviour as leaders in our communities and then working for significant reforms to social and economic policies and electoral systems.
So, if UPND politicians want anymore trust from voters, what should they do?
They need to stop playing deceitful politics with people’s trust. It’s a paradox of our modern democracy that we have the conditions and tools to enable our political system to work better than ever before, yet all that seems to be discussed today is its dysfunction. In this country, people are, for the most part, relatively well-educated and yet poverty-stricken.
In theory, that should encourage an interested and alert citizenry. The communications revolution empowers the electorate – or should.
So much more information is available and instantly attainable than only a generation or two ago, including tools for monitoring events and debates and thus improving interaction and accountability.
Today’s plethora of social media platforms ought to be positive for the process, providing constant feedback to decision-makers about what people think and want, and channels for voters to express their opinions.