Every vote counts

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

Democracy has its roots in Ancient Greece and there are many claimants to the title of having the longest history of an elected government including our Isle of Man. Universal suffrage under which men and women have the right to vote is a relatively new experience. It took many iterations to broaden eligibility from wealthy elites to all citizens and in the case of some, to include established residents of other nationalities. 800 years after the Magna Carta, there is still a challenge to strengthen the charter between the electorate and the government.

Republics, constitutional monarchies, parliamentary and presidential systems have emerged with many varied features and attributes. No one single form is yet perfect. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time”. My own observation is that the more adjectives the official name of a country has, the more distant it is from the virtues it espouses.

What is not contested is that the right to vote is precious. Many of our forebears struggled to achieve the right to self determination and to have a say in who rules, how we are governed and for how long they stay in office. Women, minority and ethnic groups have had to overcome violence and bigotry to take part in elections and run for office.  In some countries, voting is compulsory even if it means turning up and recording ‘none of the above’ as a preference. By choosing not to vote, I believe, an individual loses legitimacy in engaging in political discourse and their opinion counts for little. Apathy and indifference erodes democracy even if it is less obvious than a military coup.

The motivation to enter politics varies. For some, the calling comes from ideologies of liberty, equality and opportunity. Some see economic prosperity as a priority whilst others place emphasis on the need to protect vulnerable members of the community. In some parts of the world, political parties swing votes more strongly than personalities. Power for the sake of it, self-service masquerading as public service or parochialism draped as nationalist patriotism and fear mongering are not good credentials for those seeking office. History shows how dictators sow the seeds of hatred and retribution disguised as a noble populist cause.

A free media and safe environment where journalists can test the views, policies and track record of those running for election are essential features of a functional democracy. A distinction is needed between paid for advertorials and credible editorials. Soft lines of enquiry with little challenge to assertions and the absence of rigorous fact checks, amount to a public disservice by journalists.

Social media is increasingly the space where politics is now conducted. A piercing message or an unflattering image relayed over a smart phone can say more about a candidate than a traditional newspaper. Used well, social media can tilt the difference between losing and winning.

Face to face engagement is still the preferred mode of political campaigns. Posters, banners, flags and leaflets bring vitality to elections in all parts of the world. Free of violence and intimidation, rallies are festive occasions. A battle for hearts and minds does not require bearing of arms and throwing of stones.

The search for the perfect vote counting system is not yet over. A show of hands, a manual cross on a ballot paper or electronic voting has its supporters and critics. Wholesale rigging is becoming more difficult to do. Typically, attention is drawn to real and imaginary flaws in vote counting systems as a proxy for mistrust in the way politics is conducted or as an excuse for losing.

Running a party and participating in elections is expensive. Some have called for State funding to mitigate the need for finding ways to pay back wealthy sponsors. Most countries cap permitted expenditure which then leads to ingenious workarounds. The universal need is for transparency of the sources of funds as well as expenditure.

To make every vote count, Election Day is only the beginning. Supporters of the victors have the hard task of turning their euphoria into action. The true role of the opposition is to hold the new administration to account throughout its term. Their purpose is to improve what the elected representatives deliver and to convince voters each day why they would be a better choice next time.

The power of each voter is profound. A vote sold cheaply has a much higher and prolonged cost. Wherever you are exercising choice in 2016, do so with care and weigh up the options. Make your vote count.

(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador)


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