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Learning Note 5: Citizen perspectives on politics — a qualitative study in context of national elections (part 1)

Guest post by Leah R. Rosenzweig & Lily L. Tsai, Governance Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Elections are a basic aspect of a responsive government. Voting for a government official is a way of voicing leadership preferences to the government, and selecting officials who will prioritize citizens’ needs and address their concerns. Government responsiveness suggests a relationship between the government and its citizens that is open, collaborative, and iterative. In Tanzanian politics, what role do elections play in providing citizens with the agency to hold the government accountable, and to increase government responsiveness in the political system? This post, first in a two-part series, describes the methods and approach of this research, undertaken jointly by Twaweza and MIT’s GOV/LAB. The second post will follow with initial results of the formative research. At the time of writing, the campaigns are in full swing and the political space is heating up in Tanzania. In this exciting time, Twaweza and GOV/LAB continue to collaborate on innovative research around elections; we will continue to post periodic updates on methods and findings.

How do ordinary Tanzanian citizens see politics and government? What do Tanzanian citizens think of as “engagement” and “participation” in politics? How do citizens interact with parties and political elites? These questions are of particular interest as Tanzania prepares for the upcoming national elections in October this year. By understanding citizen behavior, we can better understand how citizens develop political beliefs and habits. These opinions have direct implications for whether and how citizens will participate in the 2015 national elections.

Yet, getting citizens to openly discuss these questions and obtain meaningful answers is often quite challenging. From December 2014-March 2015 we at MIT GOV/LAB partnered with Twaweza to do just this. To investigate citizen perspectives on politics we developed an open-ended qualitative research protocol. Initially we were less concerned with standardization and quantitative comparisons and instead interested in understanding the range of possible sentiments and actions.

To select the areas of the country to visit and interview citizens we identified places that had visible inequality as well as opposition political parties presence (i.e. not fully CCM dominated areas). These two criteria led us to mainly focus our attention on urban slums as well as a few poor peri-urban areas. We conducted this research in urban slums in Arusha (a base of opposition support in the north), Mwanza (another opposition stronghold in the north), Dar (the informal political and economic capital), Morogoro (more rural than Dar), and Mbeya (another southern politically active city). Cities offer a great opportunity to investigate how ethnic, religious, and political party heterogeneity inform citizens’ experience and attitudes.

Afrobarometer data suggests that contrary to theoretical expectations developed based on data from consolidated democracies, the poorer citizens turnout at higher rates than rich citizens in Tanzania (as well as many other developing democracies). Since the poor are the majority in the country and are also at the head of political activity we were keen to interact with these citizens in particular.

This research would not have been possible without the assistance of our dedicated in-country team of eight research assistants and research manager. In each of the sites visited the research team walked down main roads and dirt paths to try and engage a range of different types of people in conversation. We approached people informally at first to see if they would be willing to participate in an interview about their attitudes toward government and their participation patterns. To discuss more sensitive topics we used role-playing exercises, focus group discussions, and hypothetical scenarios.

Depending on an individual’s availability, interviews lasted anywhere from five minutes to one hour. On average interviews generally lasted 45 minutes. In some cases we interviewed groups of individuals together, while in other cases we interviewed individuals privately. Blending these interview and sampling methods allows us to observe whether group dynamics drastically alter the opinions citizens share. In many cases we found this to be the case, especially around sensitive questions of political party support and voting behavior. Overall, we found citizens to be generally quite willing and excited to speak to us, especially about these questions of citizen agency and how their government is performing. In total we conducted over 80 interviews with Tanzanian citizens.

Although not a strictly “random” sample, we did keep in mind different demographic variables (such as age, sex, and occupation) in approaching potential interviewees. Since the goal was not to get a fully representative sample, but rather to explore the range of potential viewpoints and behaviors, we also employed snowball-sampling techniques to follow up on particularly interesting stories that respondents revealed.

Our fieldwork overlapped with the recent local elections that took place on December 14, 2014. We conducted field visits and interviews before and during the local elections, which allowed us to get a first-hand look at the campaigning and election process and citizens’ perceptions of voting and opposition parties. We also conducted field interviews with political elites in Dar es Salaam to understand their own perspectives and strategies.

One of the benefits of this type of qualitative research, compared to a close-ended survey, is that it is easily revised and adapted in real time to what is being learned on the ground. Based on our initial findings in December and our debriefings with our Tanzanian researchers, we adapted our list of in-depth interview topics and questions. While the MIT researchers were back in Cambridge our team of research assistants investigated these questions through individual interviews with a diverse range of people in their communities (geographically spread across our research sites) over the course of several weeks. Some weeks we gave them specific instructions on whom to choose as their interviewees. The researchers took notes during the interviews, and then translated these notes into a written report. Each research assistant wrote one report per week that contained a write-up of all the interviews they conducted that week. Our research manager collated the reports, did follow-up checks and phone calls with the researchers and emailed us the reports. These reports inform much of our findings and provide rich direct quotations of citizen statements.

Here are a few highlights of our findings based on the research assistants’ field reports, observations, focus groups and interviews in Tanzania:

“Politics” is a word that has a very negative connotation for most Tanzanian citizens.  Most citizens express deep distrust of politicians and say that they do not enjoy “politics.” Many wananchi feel ignored by the government, either intentionally marginalized or simply forgotten. Despite high distrust in politics and government, many citizens follow and discuss politics. Political “participation” is limited to voting in elections, as this is the main opportunity to engage with government. Voting is also perceived to be one of few actions that is encouraged and officially sanctioned by the government. People express fear and uncertainty about engaging in other forms of political behavior such as questioning officials at meetings or contacting representatives. Many citizens see their support for political parties as being part of a team.  Support of their party seems to be a core part of their identity, and support is given relatively uncritically or unconditionally. 

In the following blog post we go into greater detail about these findings. Specifically, we discuss what we found as the answers to the three main questions of focus: i) How do ordinary citizens see politics and government? ii) What do citizens think of as engagement and participation? and iii) How do ordinary citizens interact with parties and political elites?
 

Read more: Dar es salaam Kenya learning learning note lections MIT politics

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