I overheard a conversation recently between a younger person and a not much older person. The younger person was adamant that she wasn’t voting in the upcoming elections. The older person was trying to explain to her the value of her vote and the fact that many in the past struggled, sacrificed a lot and lost their lives in some cases, for her to get that opportunity to exercise that right to vote. The conversation was intriguing because I felt it reflected the national discussion that is currently in progress across the length and breadth of Barbados.
The younger person’s explanation was by and large similar to the one I have heard mouthed by many of our younger generation: “They (the politicians) are all the same. They only in it for themselves. What will I get out it?” And the excuses go on and on.
If that thinking is pervasive among our younger folks, and I believe it is, and I suspect growing among our not so young people as well, then where are we as a democratic society; a people that proudly boasts of a country which freely and fairly elects its Government?
Now, it can be argued that the right to vote is equal to the right not to vote. And that is true. Refusal to exercise one’s right to vote can be for several reasons. But when that rationale is based primarily on a feeling of frustration, dissatisfaction and resignation that the vote means nothing, then I believe we as a society have a deeper crisis and it needs examining.
Our democracy is built on the fact that elections are constitutionally due every five years and that every eligible citizen has a right to vote as they wish for the candidate running in the constituency that they are legally registered. It is a ‘right’. Like other rights, they are free to exercise that right, or not to exercise it. But how important is that right as compared to other rights? And how important is the outcome of exercising it or refusing to exercise it?
If we consider exercising the vote as only a right then we ignore the very important responsibility attached to that right. It is argued that the democratic election of the country’s governing representatives is the responsibility of citizens rather than just a right conferred upon them constitutionally. Several countries have made voting compulsory in their laws with penalties if one does not vote. However, these countries are divided into those that enforce the law and those that do not.
Countries that have made voting in elections compulsory equate it to civil responsibilities such as taxation, jury duty, education or military service. Voting in these democracies is regarded as one of the “duties to community” as mentioned in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This view asserts that, by introducing an obligation to vote, all citizens governed by a democracy partake in the responsibility for the government appointed by democratic election.
The notion of making voting compulsory has been floated from time to time here in Barbados. It gained prominence in discussions when the question of paying persons to vote was hotly debated after the last elections.
With the increasing tendency among humans to look after self-interest and view life through a prism of what is best for ‘me’ and what benefits ‘me’ then the voter will also consider what are the expected benefits if he or she votes and further which candidate he or she should vote for that offers the best for his or her circumstances. And if, as the young person in the conversation above sees no immediate or direct benefits, then there is absolutely no need in her mind to exercise that right to vote. No amount of telling her that her forefathers fought and died for that right will likely impact on her to make her change her mind.
We have to examine what has caused our young generation to adopt such a laissez faire approach to this extremely important exercise in our democracy. Are our politicians to blame for the current situation? Is it a build-up over years of persons making promises that they do not intend to keep or even have the ability to carry out? Or is it simply that the world has changed significantly and our political aspirants have not kept up?
The newer parties have tried to bring something fresh and to reach those on the sidelines. But in my opinion they have not been successful, with some describing them as “old wine in new bottles”.
My son turned 18 last year and has the right to vote in the upcoming elections. He reflects what many in his generation argue – that voting is a “waste of time”. To change that perception it meant getting him involved in political consciousness and participation in the electoral process.
One has to believe in something to have a conviction that it is important. Sadly, that belief has been stripped away by disenchantment in the political process and in politicians. In fact politicians have no one else to blame but themselves if there is a perceived lack of interest in making life better for one’s constituents and if there is a perception that the politician is only about his or her own self-interest. In this case, the ultimate outcome is a move away from the political process.
This is a dangerous situation for a country to find itself in. Lack of interest in who governs opens the door to dictatorial powers. It pushes those in power to hold onto power without care or consideration.
We have to turn back this tide of non-interest. Our delicate democracy needs the majority getting involved in the political process. We cannot have our younger generation which is our future sitting on the sidelines, being mere spectators in the political arena. We have to encourage them, we have to involve them and we have to ensure that they move beyond seeing the exercise of voting as a right, but rather as a very important responsibility.
My last column spoke to the right and the need to protest when necessary. If we crave for a betterment in our situation then we have to use the tools at our disposal. In democratic societies like ours one of those very important tools is that ‘x’ that you place on the ballot paper. It makes a world of difference whether you feel it does or it doesn’t. Further to that ‘x’ we have to hold all who seek and achieve political office accountable. So it is not just enough to vote, it must be that we are involved as auditors of these persons who have been given the charge of leadership.
It is not only about personal benefit it is about the country’s success.