Letters & Opinion

Dropping In On Democracy’s Dropouts

By Clement Wulf-Soulage
By Clement Wulf-Soulage

IS there something in the volcanic air that makes St. Lucia’s politicians consume each other in campaigns of internecine fighting rather than actually working for the best interests of the nation as a whole? The isle is just full of noises and it certainly doesn’t devalue my political credibility to postulate that petty and parochial party politics has paralyzed our country’s progress.

Over the years, what has happened is that through the constant bickering, confrontation and polarization, our democracy has been starved of its vibrancy and glamour. Arguably for that reason, St. Lucia has seen the quixotic rise of the non-voter or what some would call “democracy dropouts”, a term used to describe those over the years who have opted out of the democratic process.

Democracy is a great thing if people stay interested in it and it works. Above all, it thrives on a contest of ideas and voter participation. At a time in our nation where there is a sharp divide between the haves and the have-nots, and where political discussions and debates often seem to degenerate into character assassinations, we have to ask ourselves if our system of democracy is working in terms of generating and maintaining voter participation.

Let’s take a look at some statistics. As reported by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), the 2011 elections recorded a 56.84% voter turn-out, the second-worst since St. Lucia attained independence in 1979. From a list of 150,996 registered voters, the total number of people who cast their votes was an abysmal 85,821. The lowest participation rate was in 2001 at 31.54%. In 2006 only 58.46% of registered voters turned out to exercise their franchise. What this tells us is that at the last parliamentary elections, almost half of the eligible population didn’t bother to vote. That certainly is bad for party politics, but even worse for representative democracy. I can only make an educated guess as to the reasons: apathy, anger and frustration at the relentlessly negative tone of the campaigns and the divisive nature of party politics.

I do understand that in any democratic society, there are many different opinions and interests, often in direct opposition to one another. These are reflected in the election campaigns in which parties appeal to the electorate for support with their competing programmes, and in debates in Parliament over how these policies should be translated to practical measures. Because different groups and individuals will be affected in different ways, there are bound to be arguments about whether taxes should be raised or lowered, and how much money should be spent on what kinds of public works, whether the government should help with hospital and medical expenses, and what kind of investments the country needs for its development. That notwithstanding, the citizenry must always be at the forefront of the debate and should determine what policies should be adopted; and unless they are intelligent in their understanding and responsible in the exercise of their judgement, the mistakes they might make could be disastrous for their country and for themselves. Setting the agenda is something that too many individuals out of laziness or inertia relinquish to politicians. The “big guys” at the top are allowed to frame the issues, run the dialogue and set the parameters. The population then reacts to the menu handed to them. This circumstance may have even resulted in people consistently voting against their own self-interest or helping to elect bad politicians because of their refusal to vote. In other words, the quixotic or apathetic attitude of the voters or non-voters will eventually determine whether our democracy succeeds or fails.

Lamentably an increasing number of voters are adopting the role of consumers – and are morphing into couch-potato voters who would like to be “offered” something by politics instead of actively informing themselves about what the politicians are proposing. But democracy is not a delivery service or an entertainment programme. A democracy can expect a certain degree of knowledge from its citizens – a modicum of involvement. Today, more than ever, we bear a continuous responsibility for judgement and decision. The fundamental fact about our system of government is that it must rest on the will and support of the people at all times.

Civic knowledge is the cornerstone of a strong democracy. Under our first past the post system, the actual choice of those who will govern us usually takes place at intervals of several years. The process by which the choice is determined, however, calls for attention by the voter to the issues that arise from day to day. He must try to keep informed about their nature; he must follow and on occasions take part in discussions that help to clarify opinions; he must make up his mind whether the government is doing a satisfactory job or whether some other group could do it better. Democracy in a country such as ours, where an alarmingly large number of voters are quite uninformed, uneducated and inherently loyal, could be a hindrance to the execution of democratic principles and the pursuance of developmental objectives.

A democratic state is one in which the citizens have the right to criticize the government, to oppose or support the government, and are able to do all these things by peaceful and legal means. Where these rights are denied, the pretence of democracy is nothing more than a sham and the hollowness of the deception is at once exposed when these simple tests are applied.

Very soon from now St. Lucia will once again enter into a period of political campaigning and activity. General elections are constitutionally due at the end of 2016, and indubitably, the political heat is already on and rising. I am hoping that our politicians would now more than ever recognize the tremendous need for more political debate and discussion of issues of national importance such as education, the economy and health care. We really need to summon all our intellectual resources to get this country moving again.

The fact that more qualified individuals are prepared to enter the political arena augurs well for the nation’s political future and perhaps is an indication of our resolve to make politics more appealing and interesting. The country can use some intellectual and technocratic talent. Of course, I am not suggesting Plato’s idea of a government of philosopher-kings. That’s arguably something that we really don’t need. The point is we need educated and valuable exchanges to replace the political diatribe and character assassination that have characterised St. Lucian politics over the years.

There is especially an acute need for more town hall debates between or among persons who avail themselves for political office. One of the biggest competitions in party politics should surface near the end of each fiscal year. Nationwide discussions of budgetary allocations and broader fiscal policy are a necessity if we are to fully address the nation’s long-term financial health.

It’s about time that St. Lucians understand that democracy is not only the short process of voting. It is in fact much more than just another way of organizing and working a country’s political institutions. It is a whole way of life, of which the form is only one reflection. It expresses the spirit of a community that is truly self-governing in the broadest sense of the word. Among modern Prime Ministers and Presidents, the greatest are those who found their strength in the trust of the people, and who won that trust by their ability to embody and translate the aspirations of the democracies they serve.

The time has come for us to realize that politics in its true sense is a means of liberation, education and self advancement. Obviously I am not referring to the banal politics of self interest, self congratulation and rhetoric – which only aims at burying the real issues under a mask of piety and platitude, but the politics of responsibility which seeks to identify the real issues and present them to the people for decision.

In recent years, our national politics has become very boring because our leaders on both sides have failed to provide us with candid and clear-cut formulation of problems, as well as the facts necessary for intelligent choice. Real politics is the competitive provision of ideas and solutions to the people in an effort to allow them to decide which programmes deserve support.

Finally, as we approach our national elections, let’s hope that the media and the private sector all join in the debate and offer digestible and nutritional food for thought. St. Lucians are called upon to exercise continuous responsibility as active members of the community. If they do not take the trouble to keep themselves informed about public affairs, or allow their emotions to prevail over their better judgement, or insist on putting their own particular advantage ahead of the general interest, the affairs of the community are bound to suffer.

For comments, write to Clementwulf@hotmail.com – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Former University Lecturer, Business Economist and Author.

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