For much of American history, political party conventions were spontaneous and unpredictable, with lively debates between delegates over who should be named to the top of the ticket.
Today, party primaries held before the meetings have largely decided who the party flag-bearer will be. But the conventions remain an important way for millions of television viewers to evaluate the candidates, and some of the parties’ rising stars.
Accent on the visuals
The gatherings are often carefully planned and scripted, with little room for error. It’s not unusual for newsmakers or celebrities to take part. One such example was a surprise appearance by Hollywood director and actor Clint Eastwood at the recent Republican Party convention in Tampa.
Professor Tawana Kupe, the Dean and Associate Professor of Media Studies at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, said from what he saw, performance was key.
"That’s why even Hollywood characters intrude on to the script," he said, "with Clint Eastwood as an example (as a presenter). Similarly, the politicians and speakers at the conventions are in part chosen to be good speakers, to captivate, to be telegenic."
Judith February, the program manager of the Political Information and Monitoring Service at the Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA) in Johannesburg, said some viewers were cynical about the conventions, which she said, were very expensive and had " what would be viewed as quite a bit of razzmatazz."
The US press
says the conventions cost more than $100
million dollars to produce. Pundits say part of the effort was to improve the candidates' favorability, or likeabilty, among potential voters.
February said in Africa, there would more emphasis on the party rather than the candidate.
"I think a lot of that [in the U.S.] is driven by a very intense high tech media and also social networks," she saids, "and by increased amount of money spent in the United States on polling. In Africa and in South Africa, very little polling happens on what people think or feel about candidates or parties."
Candidates vs. parties
In contrast to U.S. conventions, many parties in Africa name their leaders in party conferences, which are more formal. For example, in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma is expected to be nominated for a second term at a party conference in December.
As with the U.S. conventions, the press is expected to be present, but February says the real decisions are often taken behind closed doors.
"Everyone knows the important decisions take place behind the scenes," she said, "and that is subject to the party’s own form of internal party democracy which often leaves a lot to be desired. Part of the struggle in South Africa for openness is to get the ruling party to be more open and accountable so citizens can make more informed decisions."
Felix Odhiambo, a Nairobi-based spokesman for the East Africa branch of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, said many parties in East Africa have regular meetings of national delegate conferences (or NDC’s). He said at least one Kenyan opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement, has used the event “in a participatory and inclusive manner” to choose their presidential candidate.
"If we entrench this practice," he said, "we will make it a norm and a democratic process for electing presidents. It will enable parties and presidential candidates in Africa to begin addressing themselves to certain policy platforms as with the U.S. conventions."
Odhiambo said because the media is not as developed as in the U.S., the conferences do not get as much publicity. In many African countries, the state controlled press limits access to political meetings, especially the opposition.
Deprose Muchena, the deputy director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa in Johannesburg, said "the media landscapes are populated and dominated by state broadcasters, and they have the tendency to support incumbent parties and not allow opposition parties to get media play. So there’s no interaction between voters and opposition parties."
In many southern African countries, the parliament, which is partially based on a proportionality system, names the new president. He or she is usually the president of the party with the highest number of votes.
Muchena said the system encourages a focus on the party rather than the character or back ground of the president and vice president, who are committed to the party agenda. He said, unlike in the U.S., it tends to protect the eventual president of a country from being scrutinized by voters during the campaign.
Focus on economics and social issues
In many African parliamentary systems, candidates are required to offer solid support to the party platform. In contrast, U.S. candidates sometimes distance themselves from platform themes they fear may not enjoy wide voter support.
This election cycle, the U.S. conventions highlighted issues also likely to be debated on the campaign trail, including the economy and unemployment.
Media analyst Professor Twana Kupe of Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg said he sees a similarity between some of the topics mentioned at the U.S. conventions, and those at African conferences.
He also said he sees a similarity between some of the positions of the U.S. parties and South Africa’s two leading parties, the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance, or DA.
"You could say," he said, "there’ s a degree of congruence between the ANC which [similar] to the Democrats say we need a better state which is efficient enough to deliver [services] or [help minimize income inequalities] because individuals cannot do it on their own. "
"[In contrast]," he continued, " the DA [similar to the Republican Party] would say you need less state intervention particularly in the economy and more privatization initiatives, because the state is taxing businesses and economic growth and should therefore retreat somewhat."
Size of government
Good government activist Deprose Muchena says in many African countries, the debate would focus more on eliminating corruption, growing the economy and improving the performance of the state, which is seen as a much needed partner to the private sector. He says it’s the opposite of those at U.S. conventions, especially the Republican convention, who spoke of reducing the size of the state and cutting social services.
"The economic philosophy of running the economy," he said, "doesn’t make much sense in a country like Malawi, where half of the population lives below the poverty line, or in Zimbabwe where 85 percent of the population is unemployed or in Mozambique where half of budget comes from development assistance.
"The state in southern Africa has to play a critical role in economic development and management and is seen as an actor. But also, the private sector has to be allowed to play its role in job creation, investment and ensuring there is economic growth."
One social issue emerging at the Republican convention was the right to unrestricted access to abortion. In the U.S., abortion is legal, but many favor restrictions on the procedure, and others want it to be banned.
Ilona Tip said in many African countries, party platforms address women’s rights, though abortion is not a major issue.
Tip, who is the operations director of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa in Johannesburg, said in South Africa, access to abortion is a constitutional right, with little public dissent. She said among countries in the region, a major focus is placed on improving the participation of women in politics.
"The Southern African Development Community has a gender protocol," she explained, "that calls for… 50 percent of women in all decision making structures across the board, not just parliament, but in the economy, law …Many countries are far behind. People are struggling to put food on the table. The bigger the family and the less control women have over their decisions, the harder to feed these families."
With the end of the conventions, the Romney and Obama campaigns will turn to another method of influencing U.S. voters – televised debates. They’ll test in part the candidate’s rhetorical skills, and their ability to put forward, or refute, potential solutions to the country’s problems.
And they’ll give foreign viewers another glimpse into how Americans elect their national leaders.