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  >  African Politics   >  How the RFP won the election

How the RFP won the election

MASERU – THE Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) had set off like a jet in the first few months of its launch. Its membership book was swelling fast, rallies were packed and social media was abuzz.

The Moruo slogan had caught on, especially in urban areas where the party was most visible with its regalia and car stickers.

Sam Matekane’s helicopter which many had grown accustomed to be seen as a mere rich man’s toy had somehow become one of the party’s main symbols.

The Matekane brand was the wind in the RFP’s quick sail. The party didn’t have to remind anyone who Matekane was.

His reputation as a successful businessman preceded him.

As other parties scurried for a reaction to the new kid on the block, the RFP mopped supporters across the country.

Even before spelling out its policies, the party was benefiting from the power of newness.

The old parties, blamed for every ill by angry and disappointed voters, were reeling.

It seemed the Democratic Congress (DC) and the All Basotho Convention (ABC) were finally paying their bills for years of presiding over governments that failed to deal with the scourges of poverty, unemployment and corruption.

They were being hung by their rope. Hoist by their own petard.

Five years earlier, the ABC had swiftly squandered its goodwill and mandate with reckless policies and internal leadership feuds. The DC, having joined the coalition three years earlier, was being damaged by the association and its legacy.

The Basotho Action Party (BAP), which had appeared to be on the rise months earlier, was losing its shine to the RFP.

It wasn’t part of the old political guard but the newness and appeal had gone with it.

To outsiders, it looked like the RFP was on course to bring Lesotho’s political establishment to its knees. Yet inside the party, frustration was setting in.

The membership was not growing fast enough to reach the numbers required to prevail in the election.

As the initial euphoria petered membership numbers plateaued and the party looked like it had reached its limit. Numbers were still trickling in from the districts but not as fast as the leadership wanted.

By August 2, eight weeks before the election, the RFP had 139 000 members. The DC, which the RFP considered its main rival, still had around 345 000 on its books.

There were also several unknowns about the numbers and the level of the DC’s popularity.

The RFP could not tell if the recent survey by Afrobarometer that predicted a DC win still held.

The survey showed that the DC would win 42 percent of the vote with the ABC coming a distant second at 21 percent. The BAP was projected to be third with eight percent while the Movement for Economic Change, Alliance of

Democrats and Lesotho Congress for Democracy were tied at six percent.

Although it was widely accepted that the ABC was bleeding support, there was scant evidence that its people were crossing to the RFP.

The RFP leadership could not definitively claim that it was the main beneficiary of the exodus from the ABC.

It might as well have been recruiting new voters not previously aligned to any party. Perhaps the BAP still had the momentum and ABC supporters were still trooping to it. Whatever the explanation, it quickly became clear to the RFP that it was not growing fast enough and 139 000 was not enough to win the election.

At the same time, the leadership privately admitted to its bungling of the primaries that had damaged the party’s reputation. Pockets of animosity had emerged after the party used interviews to sideline some candidates that had fairly won the primaries.

Matekane had also angered some of the initial supporters by insulating his party’s top leadership from primaries.
Something had to be done.

What followed was something unprecedented in Lesotho’s politics and election campaign. It explains the RFP’s spectacular victory a fortnight ago.

For the past two weeks, thepost has been piecing together the key elements of the RFP’s election-winning strategy. It has had interviews with key players in the campaign and combed through the party’s campaign strategy documents.

Most of those documents were and are still highly classified, only distributed to a few leaders of the party to avoid straying into opponents’ hands. The interviews were conducted on the condition of anonymity.

The documents and interviews illustrate how the RFP made the drastic changes that would help it win the election. The party decided to run a data-driven campaign.

The first step of that strategy was a detailed analysis of the voting patterns in all 80 constituencies.

And that is where the expertise of Shikamo Political Advisory and Campaign Services (Shikamo), the RFP’s political and campaign strategy firm, came in.

Shikamo, managed by a Harvard alumni, advised the RFP on a strategy that would not only grow membership across the districts but also get the members to show up on the polling day.

At that time the RFP had an average 1 700 members per constituency. The analyses revealed that if the voter turnout remained at the 2017 level of 580 000 (46 percent) of the registered 1 250 000 voters, the RFP would need an average 3 600 votes per constituency to win.

The party, the campaign strategists advised, had to answer three critical questions. The first was how many supporters it had and which areas it considered strongholds.

The second was how the membership compared to the number of registered voters. The third question was how support in each constituency compared to the voting patterns in the 2017 and 2015 elections.

Although the RFP downplayed the potential damage of the fiasco in the primaries, documents show that the party took it as one of the main risks to its campaign. The other two main challenges were the party’s inability to access its strength across the country and the perception, supported by the Afrobarometer survey, that the DC would win.

The average of 3 600 votes per constituency became the magic number to strive for.

The party was banking on having a turnout higher than 46 percent and making sure that there was higher voter registration in areas it had strong support.

The strategy, according to documents, was to not only get members but to ensure they are registered and would vote.

How to communicate this mission to district campaign teams and leaders without getting it leaked to competitors was a huge concern for Matekane, his inner circle and the consultants.

A two-day training workshop was organised for the campaign teams from all constituencies.

The workshop focused on membership recruitment and campaign strategies. In the workshop each campaign team was given constituencies to focus on, the campaign methods to use and the target number of members to recruit by the end of September.

Curiously, none of those campaign strategies included traditional rallies at the local level.

The teams were instructed to focus on small intimate events that directly touch the lives of voters.

In the five Butha-Buthe constituencies, for instance, the campaign teams were instructed to use car rallies, youth activities, blood donor days, door-to-door campaigns and community cleaning activities. Other teams held mental wellness days, school debates and cultural days. Those activities were replicated in other districts with variations and additions.

In Leribe the party added visits to churches, hospitals and funerals. They also spiced up things with fun walks, celebrations of Women’s Day and games.

Berea was to be blitzed with concerts as well as soccer and netball matches.

In rural constituencies like Thaba-Tseka, Mokhotlong, Qacha’s Nek and Quthing the party started by building and training the campaign teams.

And when they went to the villages the teams focused on pitsos (community gathering), taxi ranks, the elderly, herd boys, funerals, soccer tournaments, horse racing and field races.

Each member of a constituency team had a target of members to recruit by mid-September.

Matekane was also leading from the front. He accepted a punishing eight-week campaign schedule.

For five days every week, Matekane would hop on to his chopper to have marathon meetings with district committees and campaign teams.

He would rest one day and hold a star rally on either Saturday or Sunday in the district after the meetings.

Back in Maseru, Matekane is said to have become obsessed with the numbers from the districts.

One member of the campaign teams tells thepost that the team at the party’s command centre in Maseru became accustomed to hearing of Matekane aggressively demanding numbers.

“He would always ask about the numbers. He would say ‘I want my numbers’,” said the official who spent most of the last weeks preceding the election at the command centre.

Another official said Matekane insisted on daily reports of the new members recruited.

Matekane’s meetings with the district campaign teams debunk the perception by many of his rivals that the RFP didn’t have local structures.

While it might have been true that the district teams were not de facto constituency committees in the traditional sense, they still represented some sort of structures the party could use to manage its campaign.

It is those teams the party used to recruit members and organise star rallies in the districts.

Documents show that the RFP had a comprehensive eight-week social media campaign strategy to promote Matekane, candidates, fight negative publicity, and coordinate responses to threats to the party.

The strategy also included counter-attacking the RFP’s rivals. Rallies were streamed live on social media where the party interacted directly with the audience.

To get the social media campaign right the RFP trained 30 people to run its Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp platforms.

Radio was used to promote the party and its candidates.

Where the party pushed the counter narratives depended on the context. For instance, the party would use community radio stations if the threats were at town or district levels.

Local national radio stations and South Africa’s Lesedi FM were used to counter narratives and falsehoods in the highlands.

By September 26 the RFP’s membership had grown by 148 percent, from 139 000 to 346 000. That is close to the 350 000 that the DC had on its books.

The campaign however did not end because the party shifted gears to encourage members to vote.

Then October 8, a day after the election, the numbers started streaming in from the polling stations. As the team at the command centre watched the results’ dashboard the numbers aligned with their predictions.

The RFP won 36 of the 42 constituencies it had marked as “definite wins” and 18 of the 28 predicted as “might wins”.

It prevailed in only two of the ten classified under “Will not win”. The RFP had won by growing numbers and getting them to vote on polling day.

To appreciate why the RFP’s victory was not a small feat you have to look at the number of people who cast their ballots.

The 37 percent voter turnout could have resulted in a massive disaster for the party.

The party had already predicted in August that a turnout of less than 48 percent would mean a defeat. This was because new parties generally win when more people vote.

The only difference in this election is that the new party, RFP, got the majority of its members to vote.

If we assume that all those who voted for the RFP were its members this means 52 percent of its membership cast their ballots for the party.

Based on the same assumption, only 32 percent of the DC’s 350 000 members voted for the party. The RFP’s spokesperson, Mokhethi Shelile, is still reluctant to reveal much detail about how the party won the election.

“It was just a well-oiled campaign machine led by a capable leader and a dedicated team,” Shelile said this week.

He however admits that Shikamo “helped with the numbers”.

“They helped us to push for the numbers and with the insights of what those numbers meant. But they were working with a leader whose brand was already popular and with an organised team.”

There was indeed public anger against the ABC and the DC.

Granted, the ABC shot itself in the foot by failing to deliver on its promises, failing to manage government affairs and mishandling internal politics.

True, the RFP rode on the Matekane brand and the general hunger for change among the voters.

Yet all those issues, strong as they seem, might not have been enough to hand victory to the RFP.

It was a data-driven and well-organised campaign that delivered the RFP’s victory. Of course, those two cost money to achieve.

And the RFP had deep pockets.

Lesotho’s election campaign will never be the same again.

Shakeman Mugari

Original article