New Internationalist - October 2010
Analysis she detailed the campaigns in which she was actively engaged. She saw voting as a passive handing over of power to someone else. Is the Party over? In the mainstream media, politics is overwhelmingly defined in terms of elections, parties and – increasingly – the personalities of their leaders.
In Britain, as the annual shindigs of the party conferences get underway, the context has changed. For the first time in several decades a coalition, of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is in power. Australia too recently returned a hung parliament for the first time in 70 years after a campaign described as ‘policy-light’, ‘lacking vision’ and ‘presidential in style’, a slanging match between Labor’s ‘ten-pound-pom’ Julia Gillard and the Liberals’ ‘mad monk’ Tony Abbott. Voters, it was said in both countries, had ‘punished’ the two major parties by giving neither the mandate to govern.
Party animals view such voter attitude with dismay, researchers with curiosity. Canadians Neil Nevitte and Mebs Kanji have been tracking declining levels of trust in governments and democratic institutions.
In one cross-national study they found ‘the technological transformation of leisure’ had caused ‘a decline in civic engagement and social trust’. But confidence was also declining for more positive reasons. People were becoming more critical of traditional hierarchical organizations, with a lower acceptance of authority in all areas, including family, workplace and politics.4
Not everyone agrees with this view of a steady decline in trust. Charles Barclay Roger, a London School of Economics researcher, detects a pattern, rather, of extreme fluctuations, with sharp dips tending to follow corruption scandals.5
Why don’t more people vote?
LITERACY Makes a difference – but not that much: Countries with high literacy (above 95%) have a voter turnout of 71%. Countries with lower literacy (below 95%) have a voter turnout of 61%.1
VOLUNTARY vs COMPULSORY Voter turnout tends to be higher in the 30 or so countries where it is compulsory: Compulsory: Peru – more than 80% . Voluntary: Colombia – less than 50%. But this is not always the case: Compulsory: Egypt – less than 50%. Voluntary: South Africa – more than 70%.2
1 Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, IDEA. 2 Andrew Fagan, The Atlas of Human Rights, Earthscan, 2010
For people concerned with civil liberties the most trenchant blow to trust in recent years can be summed up in four words: ‘the war on terror’. Declared by George W Bush, and echoed with alacrity by politicians around the world, it has led to some of the most profound betrayals of democracy. Betrayals at home, as democratic institutions have been weakened, civil liberties suspended and citizens sent abroad for torture; and betrayals abroad, as we (or rather our governments) invade countries and arrest, torture or kill their citizens in the name of spreading democracy – while supporting despotic leaders in ‘friendly’ countries. (See Robert Fisk, page 23.)
The most trenchant blow to trust in politicians can be summed up in four words: ‘the war on terror’
Elections are a part of democracy. The big mistake is to think they define it. A deeper definition of democracy – literally ‘people’s rule’ – must also include freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, freedom from discrimination, and the rights to assembly, protest and to a fair trial. It should also include broader human rights to health, education, and the means of survival.
As Pakistan’s floods swept away lives and livelihoods, they also revealed the dim prospect of the country’s new democracy. President Asif Ali Zadari decided the catastrophe was not grave enough for him to cut short a trip to Europe and his government’s response to the crisis proceeded from dim to dismal.
Pakistan is not alone in being run by a political class that is seen as greedy, self-serving and out-of-touch with the public it is meant to serve. The pattern is repeated in new and established democracies alike.
A US survey found that 80 per cent think that the country is run by a few big interests looking out only for themselves, while 94 per cent thought that the government did not attend to public opinion.6
It is often said that elections are bought, not won. Political economist Thomas Ferguson calls this ‘the investment theory’ of politics: policies tend to reflect the wishes of powerful blocs that invest every four years to control the state.
Most countries have rules to try to guard against this, but reality is another matter. Even in the election campaign that brought President Obama to power, nine out of ten seats won went to the candidates who had the biggest fighting funds, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama outspent McCain by two to one, gaining major contributions from financial institutions and law firms.6
It is not just money that shallows out electoral democracy, but a conscious shift away from talking about real issues during campaigns. ‘Politics is not about issues,’ writes a leading consultant to the US Democratic Party. ‘Politics is about identity. The candidates and parties that win are those aligning their positions most precisely with the majority of the electorate. The winners are those who form a positive image in the public mind of who they are and a negative image of who their opponents are.’7
This PR-dominated approach to politics is becoming common even in countries with strong grassroots party traditions. The beauty of dispersed power The irony is, the better the spin and PR around elections, the more likely people are to become sceptical of the whole process. For many it only reinforces what they already sense: that the kind of formal democracy on offer – based
16 ● New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010
Residents from the shanty city of El Alto, Bolivia, are famously unafraid to speak truth to power. Jose Gomez / Reuters
1965 American presidential
1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005
Japan general Indian general
Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in established democracies.
on periodically electing politicians and letting them make the decisions – is woefully shallow. A con, even.
They want something more. The mainstream media reports this desire quite negatively, especially when it involves young people protesting. It is presented as anti- this or anti- that. In fact, it is positive and creative.
You only have to look at the places where democracy is being made – in the streets, in communities, in meeting halls, in fields, where the key word is ‘participation’.
Ideas of ‘participatory democracy’ that emerged originally in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre have been gradually spreading, in quite a practical ‘nuts and bolts’ way.
Under the system of ‘participatory budgeting’ residents decide how to allocate part of the municipal or public budget. Citizens can identify, discuss and prioritize public spending projects. The model has spread to more than 1,200 municipalities not only in Latin America but also in France, Spain, Britain, Canada, Italy, Germany and India. Venezuela has spawned thousands of smaller but similar ‘people’s committees’.
Participatory democracy is about more than money and budgets. It affects the way communities or societies are organized, how power is dispersed rather than concentrated. Take the example of the extraordinarily
New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010 ● 17