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Bad Voters in running Democracy


That elections do not automatically foster democracy, but may instead prevent or destroy it, is conveniently forgotten. We insist that in every country in the world people must traipse off to the polling stations. Our electoral fundamentalism really does take the form of a new, global evangelism.                

By Victor Chongtham

The words “election” and “democracy” have become synonymous. We have convinced ourselves that the only way to choose a representative is through the ballot box. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states as much: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

When we say “democracy”, we only mean “elections”. But isn’t it remarkable that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains such a precise definition of how the will of the people must be expressed? Why should such a concise text about basic rights, which is fewer than 2,000 words long, pay particular attention to the practical execution of one of these rights? It is as if the people who compiled the declaration back in 1948 had come to see the specific method as a basic right, as if the procedure was in itself sacred.

Our voting system worked well for decades, but now it is broken. There is a better way to give voice to the people, the fate of a country, of an entire continent, in fact been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens? We believed democracy was a good way to govern a country. But there has been a considerable increase in calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” and that trust in governments, political parties has reached a historical low. It would appear that people like the idea of democracy but feel dislike the reality. Trust in the institutions of democracy is also visibly declining. The key players in our democracies are among the least trusted institutions in society. Although a certain skepticism is an essential component of citizenship in a free society, healthy skepticism tips over into outright aversion.  There is something explosive about an era in which interest in politics grows while faith in politics declines. What does it mean for the stability of a country if more and more people warily keep track of the activities of an authority that they increasingly distrust? How much derision can a system endure, especially now that everyone can share their deeply felt opinions online? Fifty years ago, we lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics. Now there is both passion and distrust. These are turbulent times, as the events of the past week demonstrate all too clearly. And yet, for all this turbulence, there has been little reflection on the tools that our democracies use. It is still a belief to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.

We discuss and debate the outcome of a referendum without discussing its principles. This should be surprising. In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past when communication was slow and information was limited but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today. Even in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already observed that elections alone were no guarantee of liberty: “The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, in fact, only during the election of members of parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains, and are nothing.”

Referendums and elections are both arcane instruments of public deliberation. If we refuse to update our democratic technology, we may find the system is beyond repair. Isn’t it bizarre that voting, our highest civic duty, boils down to an individual action performed in the silence of the voting booth? Is this really the place where we turn individual gut feelings into shared priorities?  Is it really where the common good and the long term are best served?

By refusing to change procedures, we have made political turmoil and instability defining features of our democracy.  Societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals. But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem. Where is the reasoned voice of the people in all this? Where do citizens get the chance to obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where do citizens get a chance to shape the fate of their communities? Not in the voting booth, for sure.

It would appear that the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected. Electoral fundamentalism is an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconceivable without elections and elections are a necessary and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to regard elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead as an end in themselves, as a doctrine with an intrinsic, inalienable value.

The blind faith in the ballot box as the ultimate base on which popular sovereignty rests can be seen most vividly of all in international diplomacy. Local democratic and proto-democratic institutions (village meetings, traditional conflict mediation or ancient jurisprudence) stand no chance. These things may have their value in encouraging a peaceful and collective discussion, but the money will be shut off unless our own tried-and-tested recipe is adhered to. “Free and fair elections” become a simple idea  for democracy  to be assembled by the recipient, with or without the help of the instructions enclosed. And if the resulting piece of furniture is lopsided, uncomfortable to sit on or falls apart? Then it’s the fault of the customer.

That elections can have all kinds of outcomes in states that are fragile, including violence, ethnic tensions, criminality and corruption, seems of secondary importance. That elections do not automatically foster democracy, but may instead prevent or destroy it, is conveniently forgotten. We insist that in every country in the world people must traipse off to the polling stations. Our electoral fundamentalism really does take the form of a new, global evangelism. Elections are the sacraments of that new faith, a ritual regarded as a vital necessity in which the form is more important than the content.  This single-minded focus on elections is actually rather odd. During the past 3,000 years, people have been experimenting with democracy and only in the last 200 have they practised it exclusively by holding elections. Yet we regard elections as the only valid method. Why? Force of habit is at play here, of course, but there is a more simple cause, based on the fact that elections have worked pretty well over the past two centuries. Despite a number of notoriously bad outcomes, they have very often made democracy possible. Elections are the fossil fuel of politics. Once they gave democracy a huge boost, now they cause colossal problems.

However, elections originated in a completely different context from the one that they function in today. When the supporters of the American and French revolutions proposed elections as a way of learning “the will of the people”, there were no political parties, no laws regarding universal franchise, no commercial mass media, and no internet. The forerunners of our representative democracy had no idea that any of these things would come into existence. If we don’t urgently reconsider the nature of our democratic fuel, a systemic crisis awaits. If we obstinately hold on to a notion of democracy that reduces its meaning to voting in elections and referendums, at a time of economic malaise, we will undermine the democratic process.

Citizens became consumers and elections hazardous. Parties began to see themselves less as intermediaries between people and power, and instead settled into the fringes of the state apparatus. To retain their places there, they had to turn to the voter every few years to top up their legitimacy. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. The passions aroused among the populace diverted attention from a far more fundamental emotion, an increasing irritation with anything and everything pertaining to politics. Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent part, responding only to the signals given them.
(Victor Chongtham is a lawyer based in Imphal)

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