political ideology, strategy, discourse, image, behaviour and organisational profile together all have their foundations in identity.
Political identity compels organisations to initiate production of documents with officially declared preferences or intentions, and these carefully arranged bodies of text are commonly known as manifestos.
Manifestos are vital in that the image that a political party paints of itself and publishes in official documents is more sincere than what other political actors or analyses say about it.
Even though a manifesto is mostly highlighting and emphasising the positives, it offers a good view about the values that bring a large group of people together seeking a mandate to govern.
The significance of a manifesto is underscored by David Robertson’s “Perspective of Programmatic Emphasis,” or the “Saliency Theory,” developed in 1976.
According to the theory, political competition is about manipulating the prominence of different issues rather than taking different positions about the same issues.
In other words, rather than officially disagreeing with rivals, political parties concentrate more on highlighting themes or policies that they consider to have an advantage over their competitors.
As an example, during the year 2000 general elections, the MDC chose to say as little as possible about land reform and indigenisation.
Rather, the party won support from sections of the electorate by highlighting the poor state of the economy and low living standards, promising better lives under its leadership as opposed to that of Zanu-PF or any other party.
MDC’s big advantage was that it was a brand new party with no political record, good or bad, preceding it.
Now that the party has been in Government for a while, its campaign strategy will not be similar to that of the year 2000.
Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, travelled to the major Western capitals during the first year of the GPA, seeking funds to develop the country, but returned home empty-handed.
The party can therefore no longer use the argument, “Everything will be better once we get into power” because when a chance was presented for it to make its mark, it did not do much.
Zanu-PF campaigned using the land reform theme in 2000 and since then, the majority of Zimbabweans benefited from the fast-track agrarian reform.
Zanu-PF had a “land” advantage because it initiated the process, its rivals supported the unpopular white-ownership of farms and it had the experience and history of fighting a settler regime on behalf of the populace.
Land can no longer be a theme now because it is now in the hands of the indigenous people that needed it back in 2000.
The Saliency Theory cites that the electorate may never have different answers to the same problems, their real dilemma would be to choose between two or more “packages” with different issues to be prioritised by the future government.
Parties simply highlight their most prominent concerns and hope that the electorate agrees.
Official political positions are reflected in manifestos and their layout and content are key determinants in ensuring that the message is loud and clear to the electorate.
Sentences need to be clear, facts have to be undisputed and numerical variables need to be meticulous.
In other words, there is no room for ambiguity in manifesto presentations because, more likely than not, the general public never gets follow-up information to qualify views or opinions.
Even if more information is provided through use of various media, it may not necessarily support the official line. There is also need for use of visual communication tools such as photographs, statistical presentations (graphs, charts, etc), party symbols and logos, and any other images that tie the message in the manifesto to the core values that shape the ideological philosophy of the party.
Visual communication helps to capture the imagination of the electorate through links it may make to history, lived experience or universal meanings.
Visuals also accentuate meaning, attract readers’ attention and make the printed manifesto look attractive. Serious political parties may sometimes have extremely unattractive manifestos aesthetically but they will always have content in their official publications.
In manifestos, the past is secondary to the future plans but it is by no means irrelevant.
Manifesto content should highlight the values important to the party, the principles that are so vital that they are non-negotiable.
However, true strength is also about being realistic and a political party that explains “challenges” is likely to be believed than one that pretends to have no flaws.
Of course, publishing every potential downside of the campaign to office would be counter-productive.
The sensible thing would be to officially set high but achievable standards that also set the tone for the election.
A manifesto cannot be a hastily arranged document but a carefully crafted set of information that mirrors the political identity of the party.