A number of people have asked me to speed up the entries on the US presidential elections. Here's my first entry, which ends with my endorsement of Barack Obama.
The process of picking up the candidates
Unlike in our mother Malawi, where all the main parties have effectively picked their candidates for the 2009 elections without even going through the required conventions, the two major political parties in the United States - the Democrats and the Republicans-follow a rather elaborate system of picking their presidential candidates. It is important, firstly, to note that in the United States, voter registration requires individuals to also indicate their party membership (they can also choose the independent option).
Each party basically calls upon its membership to choose the choice of party candidate. This is done in two ways: either there is a primary election in each of the 50 states of the United States (plus a few other territories and US citizens abroad). In the primary elections, members of each political party get to vote from a list of aspirants their choice of candidates. The second method - used mostly by Democrats is to conduct a party caucus - a system which brings together Local party members for an evening of debate before deciding who they will support for their party's presidential nomination. The process is open for all to see and takes place in someone's home or a town hall rather than a voting booth.
The rules on who can participate in which primary election or caucus differ from state to state and by party. In some states, the elections are open, meaning that an individual can choose whichever primary (Democrat or Republican) to participate in, irrespective of their party-affiliation. Some primaries are however closed to members of particular parties. The rules, however, allow people to switch their party affiliation but an individual can only take part in one primary or caucus, not both.
Based on the performance of each candidate in the party primary or caucus, the share of the vote is translated into “pledged delegates” – that is individuals who will finally take part in the Party convention to formally choose the party presidential candidate later in the year. Different states have different number of delegates, depending on demographics. In all, the Democrats allocate a total of 4,047 delegates, which means that the winning candidate needs at least 2,024 delegates to win. The Republicans have a total of 2,380 candidates. Thus for one to win the Republican party nomination, he or she has to secure at least 1,191 delegates.
The current candidates
In the current run of primaries, the Democratic party started off with a field of eight candidates. However, following poor following in the early rounds of Primary/caucuses, six of the candidates have since dropped out, leaving Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton as the only two candidates still standing. At the time of writing, barrack Obama is leading in the total delegate count, the total number of States won and the overall share of the vote. In terms of the number of pledged delegates, Obama has won 1,418 elected delegates, compared to 1,250 for Clinton. On the surface, the gap of 168 might seem too tiny. However, when considering that the Democrats allocate delegates proportionally to the vote, it is not an easy figure to overturn. In addition to the elected delegates, the Democrats also have a total of 795 “Super delegates” - members of the Democratic National Committee, elected officials like senators or governors, or party leaders. They do not have to indicate a candidate preference and do not have to compete for their position. Currently, Clinton leads in the number of pledged delegates, with a total of 248 compared to Obama’s 226. Of the 42 states that have already held their Democratic Party primaries or caucus, Obama has won 28 against Clinton’s 14.
The Republican Party started off with a field of seven candidates. After coming from behind, Senator john McCain from Arizona secured the required minimum number of votes to win the Republican ticket. As of April 20th, McCain has a total number of 1,331 pledged delegates, way past the minimum of 1,191 required to secure the Republican Party ticket.
The Lessons of American Presidential Selection process for Malawi
I have to say I like the way the US political parties involve the ordinary membership in the selection of their presidential candidates. Unlike the Malawi system, the US process is open to the participation of the ordinary membership across the entire country. The system compels candidates to adopt a national agenda and seek to win the support of their membership in each individual state. If this were imported into Malawi, all individuals aspiring for presidential office would be required to mount national campaigns, going to each individual district to seek the vote of their party membership instead of simply relying on delegates to party conventions, the majority of whom are themselves unelected and simply answerable to the whims of the leadership. Apart from the influence such a process would give to the electorate, it would also contribute to the building of political parties that are truly national, as opposed to regional or ethnic-based parties as is the case at the present moment.
That said, I have to acknowledge too that the US process is very expensive. What I find interesting though is that the presidential campaigns are usually funded by public donations, and not necessarily from the state. This also goes to further entrench the democratic process as it gives the ordinary people a stake in the democratic process that is perhaps missing in our politics. By contrast, our major political parties are usually financed by single individuals who in turn wield significant power and influence that enables them to become de-facto life presidents for their parties.
Obama my Man
If I had the vote in the US, I would vote for the Democrats. As those who know American politics will tell, the Republicans are largely Conservative, largely inward looking in my view and less interested in the wider world. They are less interested in looking after the interests of the common man, preferring instead to promote policies that pander to the wishes of the mega-rich in society. The Republican Party, as far as I am concerned, attracts individuals that hold bigoted views of Black people.
Of the remaining two Democrats, my choice is firmly Obama. Either of the two candidates will make history: if elected, Obama will be the first Black President in the United States, while Clinton would be the first woman President. While both candidates have more or less identical policies on most major issues, I am reluctant to lend my support to Hilary Clinton on one count and one count alone: in a country of nearly 300 million people, I cannot be convinced that there are only two households that can produce Presidents: the Bushes and the Clintons. While Clinton has campaigned on a platform of long years of public service, I have to say I am not persuaded to think that simply because one was a First lady, then they are prepared for the presidency. Firstly, this would mean no one who has not had a close relation as President would qualify as US president. In any case, I don’t think being First Lady prepares anyone for the post of the Presidency – in the same way that I cannot claim to be qualified to be a Librarian just because my wife works in the Library at Chancellor College.
Obama, on the other hand, presents a fresh breathe into politics. He has generated a new interest in politics, brining a lot of excitement and interest in politics, especially among the youth. Of the two democrats, only Obama has the potential to bring about real change in American politics as well as to change the negative image of the United States elsewhere. Judging by his foreign policy statements, I am convinced this is a man who will not only bring in a new era of international politics that is less confrontational, but would also move us away from the unilateralism that has marked US foreign policy in the last couple of years.