To understand the incentives that drive citizens who vote and the politicians who seek their votes, we may need to appreciate the lessons of evolutionary psychology especially in regard to male-female sexual relations. (I am sorry for gay couples as this theory may not apply to them). Men want sex from women so as to pass on their genes. Women want love from men in form of physical protection and material provision over a long period of time to ensure the growth and survival of their off springs.
To get sex, men must demonstrate (or at least fake) love. Men do this by demonstrating a desire for long term commitment, exhibiting material resources and the willingness to use these resources to support the woman and her offspring. But it also works the other way round. For women to get love and these material benefits, they must give men sex. How these conflicting objectives are resolved explains human reproductive success.
Just imagine our ancestors of tens of thousands of years ago from whom we have inherited our current sexual psychology. Every act of sex, however reckless (like cheating with a married woman) gives a man an opportunity to sire a child. So the more sexual opportunities with different sex partners our ancestral grandfathers had, the higher was the chance of them producing many offspring and therefore leaving behind a rich genetic legacy.
Yet this was the opposite for our ancestral grandmothers. Every irresponsible act of sex by a woman may leave her pregnant without a committed partner to care for her and her off-spring. She could end up without a man to gather food, hunt wild game, or protect her and the child from wild animals and rapists. So a woman’s reproductive success depended on having sex with a man willing to build a relationship based on long-term commitment.
Yet if women have to trade sex for love, then men have an incentive to pretend to be loving, generous and committed. Once a man has enjoyed himself, he can walk away from the relationship. To limit such opportunistic behavior by amorous men, women evolved mental skills to read men’s intentions. A woman can detect whether a man is seeking a long term commitment or is merely an opportunist seeking a short term sexual liaison. One method of testing to confirm a man’s intentions is to play delaying tactics; women tend to withhold sex to test a man’s commitment.
Men in turn evolved copying mechanisms. The best way to get sex from women, men had to go beyond faking love and commitment (as fakes could be detected) to actually evolving these qualities; the better to get sexual benefits. Evolution is therefore an arms race between men seeking to exhibit love and generosity and women evolving faculties to detect pretenders and liars. What we got as a byproduct of the man’s selfish pursuit of sex was the evolution of commitment and love.
The resolution of this evolutionary puzzle offers us insights into politics. Politicians are power seeking entrepreneurs; so they are essentially selfish. But to get power in a democracy, they need to win votes of the majority. So they must ingratiate themselves with voters. By championing popular causes, they can win the hearts and minds of many. Problem is that voters are not stupid. They know (or suspect) that politicians will fake public spiritedness to get votes and once in office, do little or nothing.
Voters also know that the private returns to individual politicians (in form of improved status, income, prestige, etc) are high relative to the societal gains that come as benefits of public policy. Voters have incentives to withhold support from politicians until they demonstrate – over a period of time – their commitment to the public good. In rich countries, it is a politician’s record with different groups – labour unions, professional associations, business groups etc that gives them advantage in elections.
In Uganda (and other poor countries) the test of a politician’s public spiritedness is his/her involvement in community development work (like contributing to the building churches, clinics, schools and bridges) and in cultural activities (like attending clan meetings, funerals and weddings). Such a record carries the needed reputational capital for the politician that they have a genuine interest in the welfare of the community.
Yet all too often, the politicians who win elections are not the ones who have been involved in such community work. So why do people sometimes vote for urbanites who clearly come during election time for votes. Here, the role of bribery becomes critical. Voters insist to be paid in advance for their vote. Candidates will distribute essential commodities such as sugar; soap, alcohol and salt to the electorate, a factor that makes democratic competition promote political corruption. This incentive structure works to the disadvantage of opposition parties in poor countries.
Voter bribery works because in the absence of community spirited candidates, most poor people tend to approach politics as realists seeking to meet their immediate material needs of food, jobs, shelter, security, etc. Many of these benefits come by working through rather than against government. Poor voters are likely to support politicians who are in a position to provide these benefits rather than those who articulate a grand ideology of freedom, democracy and clean government.
President Yoweri Museveni’s public expressions of exaggerated generosity by dishing out cash to citizens at public rallies and contributing generously to grassroots organisations need to be understood in this light. It is his alternative to the failure of the public sector to deliver public goods and services. Of course all this is done at public expense and is corrupt behavior. But it endears him to most peasants who see him as a benevolent chief because they do not have a conception of the president’s personal income being different from the public finances of the state of Uganda.
In cities, more exposed youthful militants frustrated with Museveni’s leadership are looking for an alternative. Kizza Besigye has won their hearts. This is because for all his faults, Besigye has demonstrated that he is a genuinely public spirited politician. He has endured jail, beatings, pepper sprays and worse and remained committed to his beliefs where others have surrendered. His sacrifice has been enormous thus making him trustworthy. It will take the opposition long to find an alternative to firstname.lastname@example.org