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Democracy Followup

There were some rather nice comments to my post on voter apathy, but this rather good comment by James Reeler (last seen co-starring in another of my blog entries) deserves a post of its own:

The real reason for voter apathy is not just a sense of "my vote can't make a difference", but also the fact that there is often so little to choose between parties. Looking at Western governments such as the US, UK and Germany, the election frequently boils down to three or four key issues that determine which of the parties is best suited to running the country.

Things are not very different here in South Africa, although the issues are often more visceral - the topic of choice for the local elections was service delivery, in terms of providing housing, sewerage, electricity and water. Granted, the ANC has not done an overwhelmingly good job in the provision of these, and my personal inclination would be to vote them out on that basis. The point here, however, is that all the parties said exactly the same things in the election campaign. We have no reason to believe that any one party is better situated to make good on their election promises, and whilst the political will may vary, it requires a very astute judgment of character to ascertain which person is merely saying the words, and which believes it in a heartfelt manner. In the end, it often comes down to which individual you like better, without having ever met them (or in most cases, without actually hearing them debate).

Furthermore, despite all the political will in the world, the implementation of any scheme still goes through the same bureacracy, since civil service is integral to the process of governance but nominally independent of party politics. This naturally provides a certain level of inertia to any process of transformation. Furthermore, many of the international treaty agreements and trade legislation entered into by previous governments is binding. To a large extent, the international lobby and the lobby from large corporate concerns drive government policy, and a change in governance must still fall within this neo-liberal framework. This prohibits radical change in government policy, despite the political will of changing parties. The reason people say that their votes don't count is often because they do not - parties may be voted in on the back of popular assent, but after that are only marginally answerable to them.

And lastly, the process of democracy, whilst giving the illusion of involving people in the process of government, really limits their interaction to a very minimal level. Once you've voted, your participation is negligible, even in subsequent arising issues that impact on your life in a serious manner. For instance, I may in general agree with party A's policies regarding social welfare, agricultural subsidies and land redistribution, but they completely fail to mention their policy on the sale of arms to neighbouring countries. I am obliged to vote for them as the lesser of several evils, but must then live with the fact that I have condoned killing in neighbouring countries by proxy. Ann I am not able to address the issue, except by voting the party out of power in several years time.

In essence, what we have is a failing of democracy to meet its remit - that of allowing the people a voice in government. How to address that failing is a huge topic, but perhaps not one we should discuss at the moment. The point is that democracy will ONLY allow you to vote in another party, not to address the issues of what you see as the best option. Or, to put it in terms of Ingrid's example, you are never entitled to criticise your friends - just to ostracise them.

I agree with Jonathan and Dominic that attitudes are important, and that developing a culture of intelligent criticism is essential. However, I'm not certain that it is in the act of voting that it is most likely to be found. People need to think about the effects of poor governance on their lives more often than once every four years or so, and to raise issues when they need to be addressed.

And I'm happy to say that of the several nations that I have personally experienced, South Africa has one of the most questioning and politically active populaces. Granted, there is not a particularly high turnout at elections, but every day lobby groups and grassroots movements make their disapproval known on any number of issues. Not voting in South Africa does NOT mean that you necessarily approve of the government's policies - it merely means that you do not see a better alternative available. That does not prevent you from making your point regarding specific issues on which you differ with the goverment's stance, through public demonstration, lobbying, or even letter-writing. The assumption that a poor voter turnout reflects a society that is not politically active may be generally true, but it certainly does not hold for South Africa. People are prepared to stand up for what they believe in, but tend to address issues in which they have a particular interest.