Thursday, February 14, 2008

A cold midwinter caucus

by Etse Sikanku

It was my first practical experience of any US election on such a massive scale.

It was a cold midwinter night but not particularly bone chilling as temperatures remained in the 20s and I comforted myself with the thought that it could have been worse.

Before the elections several candidates had visited campus to tout their policies in a bid to win many voters to their side. In the past months-as and when class schedules permitted- I had the opportunity to listen to John Edwards, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Dodd on their various visits to campus. After months of tumult it was now time for the people to make their voices heard.

Being an unrepentant news glutton my repeated appearances at several of the campaigns had been exciting, the intensity of the campaign process had been incredible but the caucus itself has been more than amazing. On the way to the Great Hall of the Memorial Union-where Democratic Precinct 22-was meeting there was an aura of unbounded enthusiasm blowing all over. It would be the first time I’d witnessed the much talked about Iowa Caucuses. Just a few years ago I’d only been reading about such an event from newspapers back home in Ghana but here I was in Ames, Iowa about to witness the much famed American presidential caucuses. It was a night of many uncertainties. Many commentators have called this the most unpredictable race in modern American politics. The results of this event would hold much sway especially for the ambitions of a probable female, black or Hispanic president.

Anyhow as a student from Dzita- a rural farming community and grandson of a Navrongo peasant farmer- both thousands and thousands of miles away from Ames observing the crafting and creation of history in the United States, I felt a sense of providence. The scene at the Great Hall was extremely crowded with enthusiastic voters and their families. Young children were hanging on to the clothes of their parents not wanting to be left out of this epoch making event. At the entrance party staff was busy registering participants with their ever present smiles-an unmistakable trademark of the proverbial Midwestern friendliness.

Also present were some observers most of them international students who came to have a personal experience. I met nice old gentlemen who had caucused ever since the first presidential caucus was held in 1972. He told me the event had gotten more and more interesting each passing year. He also said he was going to caucus for Sen. Clinton.

After taking care of party business the precinct captain called on representatives of the various candidates to make final convincing pitches. If cheers were any indication for predicting the turn out of the election, one wouldn’t be faulted for betting on an Obama win that night. His fans were vociferous, cheering and chanting as his representative made a last minute argument for him. What was interesting but quite embarrassing was that some of the candidates like Kucinich and Gravel had no one representing them.

However the turning point of the event came when the convener announced that all delegates could move to the corner of their preferred candidates. It was an interesting scene seeing a large mass of people moving eagerly to the spot of their various candidates. In a matter of second every candidate was stationed in the camp of their preferred candidate. There were about 220 people present. It was quite shocking to see that Hillary Clinton a long time front runner who had indeed been the recipient of a women’s achievement award in Ames unable to meet the quota for viability. John Edwards and Barack Obama by this time were the only viable candidates. Immediately people from the Obama camp starting convincing the Richardson camp to join them. However, the Richardson camp was quite convinced they would be viable since they needed just four or five more persons. They set out on a ‘cross carpeting adventure’ in order to get more candidates.

The Hillary camp was way too downcast and shocked by their unviability that it took a while for them to start ‘hunting’ for candidates. By this time the Obama and Edwards’s camp were neck deep in negotiations and alliance deals with the Dodd and Biden supporters. After all the friendly arguments and coaxing some people moved camp to Richardson, Edwards or Obama. At the end of the night Barack Obama won Precinct 22 by about 120 votes, Edwards followed with 49 and Bill Richardson was third with 35 votes. As was predicted by the polls, most of the ‘unviable’ candidates joined the Edwards camp but Obama managed to pull some over whiles Richardson got enough more to become viable. Things were not looking good for Senator Clinton and out of frustration I could see some of her supporters leave the hall totally.

It was the biggest upset of the evening for the New York Senator who had led polls statewide for a long time. In the end the caucus system is admirable though impracticable under certain circumstances and I’ve been wondering how long it will continue to prevail.

One other thought that crossed my mind was how replicable such a system would be in my native Ghana or other African countries. Against the backdrop that Kenya is currently engulfed in post election violence, it makes me wonder what exactly the problem in Africa is. Why can’t Africa practice electoral democracy as successfully as this? It is a question that needs constant deliberation across the continent. This is by any measure democracy in its most undiluted form-crisp and classic with a slight potential for getting creepy.

Nevertheless it is a process that supports the major ingredients for a democracy as tested as America’s. One in which conversation and dialogue precedes secrecy and divisiveness. It is such factors which may after all guarantee the survival of the system for a long time to come


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