The Public Meeting

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WITH Nomination Day out of the way, the race to March 2 is very much on its way; the parties will intensify their appeals to the electorate in the coming weeks. We are certainly going to witness a deluge of advertisements in both the traditional and the newer social media. But despite the power of the media, the public meeting has remained the most effective mode of political communication at election time. They say old habits are hard to kill and this is true for the traditional public meeting.

We have seen both major political formations launch their respective campaigns with massive public rallies. Many observers estimate the crowd at the coalition’s launch to be in excess of 20, 000 strong. They followed that up with another massive rally at Hopetown,West Coast Berbice. The PPP is slated to hold their second rally at Albion, one of their traditional strongholds. The coalition has been holding smaller community meetings in the villages along the coast. According to reports, one of these meetings held at Buxton attracted a larger than expected crowd, prompting the organisers to treat it as a major rally.

There is something about the public meeting that separates it from other forms of political interaction. First, it is a powerful form of political conversation whereby the speakers engage in a virtual back and forth with the crowd. Even when speakers address complex issues and policies, the crowds seem to be in sync with them. There is a spirit that runs through the crowds that you don’t get at other fora.

Second, the parties get to demonstrate the volume of their political support—a show of strength in the open space. One could get a sense of the parties’ strength from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd. Sure, there are always those who attend meetings to hear about the parties’ plans, but the vast majority are there largely to cheer their party on. This has been evident at coalition meetings where their supporters seem to have come to life in ways that have exceeded expectations this early in the campaign.

Third, as alluded to above, the public meeting is a space for the dissemination of ideas and policies to the masses of people. It is where the politicians get to roll out their campaign promises, and the people get to judge the extent to which these are genuine. At the public meeting, the wall of separation between the speaker and listener is shattered and the latter in addition to hearing words gets to see the body language of the speaker.

Fourth, the public meeting could be a severe test for inexperienced speakers. People tend to be impatient with unprepared and boring speakers. Many speakers have had a rough time with crowds which are often knowledgeable about the issues. It is not a forum for barefaced lies as the speaker is often challenged on the spot by the audience. Fifth, the public meeting is a forum to discuss both national and local issues. The more vibrant meetings are those where local issues are discussed—the audiences tend to express more interests as they hear their day-to-day issues articulated on the platform.

Sixth, the public meeting is an exercise in direct, popular democracy, whereby politics is brought closer to the people. The political actors are not far away in a chamber locked away from citizens’ view—they are right there in flesh and blood. And they are at a forum that is controlled by the energies of the people who can choose to stay or not, or decide whether to give the speaker a hearing or not.

No doubt, some speakers have mastered the art of speaking at public meetings and they tend to command the attention of audiences. Such speakers are able to effectively mix messages with folksy delivery styles. In the final analysis the public meeting is not the place for pompous lectures, but a forum for mass education and mobilisation in languages that are native to the communities.

While there have been instances where public meetings have turned rowdy when audiences seek to expel parties from their communities, these are very rare. Despite the potential for such disruption, the public meeting remains the most effective mobilisation tool, especially at election time. From all indications, despite the emergence of social media, this form of political communication is not about to die anytime soon.