14 ● New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010 Analysis DEMOCRACY
The beauty of big democracy
Disillusioned with the current state of democracy? Good! Vanessa Baird celebrates the joys of disenchantment and the birth of hope.
The aim of multinational corporations is to exploit the world’s resources. But peoples’ movements will not let them. The indigenous Ecuadorians here are demonstrating to defend their rights to water. Guillermo Granja / Reuters
Who knows what she had in mind? In her purse were a return train ticket and one for a dance later that day, suggesting that martyrdom was not her intention.
Perhaps she was planning to attach a banner to a racehorse so that as it crossed the finishing line it would be, literally, flying the suffragist flag.
But that is only one of many theories. Emily Wilding Davison never recovered consciousness that day at Epsom near London in June 1913. She has gone down in popular history as the woman who ‘threw herself under the king’s horse to win votes for women’.
Global history is full of such tales of bravery and sacrifice in the cause of political enfranchisement. Much blood has been spilled to win rights we take for granted. Century of democracy In the 1970s fewer than half the world’s 192 countries were electoral democracies.
Communist dictatorships held sway across the Soviet Union; right-wing military regimes controlled Spain, Portugal, Greece and much of Latin America; and in many of the newly independent African countries one-party rule applied. In Asia, the citizens of the Philippines and Indonesia endured seemingly endless dictatorships under Marcos and Suharto respectively.
By 2000, around 120 countries were electoral democracies, representing about 60 per cent of the global population.1 Singleparty states and dictatorships had become the exception.
It appears that we have entered a golden age of democracy. And yet…
Today, in the former Soviet countries barely 50 per cent of those eligible use their vote. Despite the drama of the closeness of the race, voter turnout in Britain’s general election earlier this year was only 65 per cent. Canada turned out 59 per cent in 2008. Even the historic US contest that brought the first black president into the White House only inspired 62 per cent to vote. New Zealand/Aotearoa has seen turnout drop from nearly 90 per cent in the mid-1980s to 76 per cent. Australia, where voting is compulsory, usually brings out an impressive 95 per cent – but in the recent elections, many made clear that they had only voted to avoid being fined.2
Party activists are particularly concerned to get out the ‘youth vote’, identifying this sector as the most ‘disengaged’. In Britain fewer than half of eligible 18-24 year-olds vote.3 But it’s not just the under-25s who decide to give the polls a miss. One 70 year-old woman interviewed by the BBC said she wasn’t voting in the 2010 general election ‘because I am politically active’. When questioned further
New Internationalist ● OCTOBER 2010 ● 15