Electoral democracy, salesmanship, or the games people play

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Guest Opinion by Marie Burge

Election of politicians, though important, is not a significant measure of how well democracy is working. In fact, party politics in the current electoral system is often self-serving and does not engage citizens or communities for the long run. Democracy, meant to provide wide representation of the people, would be better served by a carefully designed system of proportional representation.

Very soon P.E.I. will be struck with election fever and many of us may even take leave of our senses and get involved in what is often called a game. Before the prospect of two major voting opportunities in 2015 and in 2016 settles on us we could reflect on democracy and elections.

Those who say I’m not voting: the government does nothing for me are probably more destructive to democracy than are corrupt politicians. These citizens are claiming that the role of government is to cater to the wants of individuals. Without missing the importance of the individual, we need to insist that government by its nature is a social institution meant to serve the whole society, with special emphasis on sectors which are usually left on the margins.

P.E.I. is cursed with a long history of patronage which gives us poor governments. In our country, people are silenced by a party’s threat, sometimes subtle, to hamper their capacity to make a living, for example. Our question is: have we made any progress from the days when a vote could be bought with a teddy of rum and a five-dollar bill?

Some say all politicians are crooked. This is untrue and unjust and can be used as an escape from responsibility. As in other sectors, we need to collectively take the time and energy, sort out who’s who, and then act accordingly. It is probably true that many politicians allow themselves to be influenced by the rich and powerful. If the message of power and money is what they hear the loudest, they will be influenced by it. That does not make them crooked.

It just makes them vulnerable and ill-informed. It also gives them access to easy campaign funds.

There are those who maintain that all the parties are the same. These are also irresponsible people who obviously refuse to put effort into studying the actual policies of each party. Currently we have four parties in P.E.I. and one independent. There really are five distinct policy directions.

Maybe politicians are more interested in selling their product than in giving voters policy options. The pre-election language and actions of candidates and their handlers brings some concerns to mind. Notice how obsessed parties are about establishing their brand. Party strategists seem to be more interested in advertising the brand than they are in policies. Parties often design election platforms around what they think will please the most of their potential voters rather than what will be for the good of the whole community. The real kicker is the belief that negative ads work.

Finally, and no less sobering is the image of politics as a game. It is all based on the sports model of winners and losers. Candidates are supposed to beat their opponents. And of course, our electoral model is called first-past-the-post. Statisticians love to feed us the odds to help us in placing our bets (we mean, our votes).

Our electoral history in P.E.I. gives us a grim picture of two parties vying with each other for absolute power. The winning party has frequently had a large majority with the opposition reduced to ineffectual pecking at the flaws of the governing party. We are not served well by this setup.

A major electoral mystery for me: what happened to the debate about proportional representation (PR) in P.E.I.? Those in power, have obviously decided in their wisdom that proportional representation is not an option. Sure we had a vote on the question. But what few people will dare to say is that those who long for absolute power did all in their power to discourage a yes vote. So now, is there a political party which would honestly take this on in the next federal election and the next provincial election?

We need to adopt a form of government which truly represents the make-up of our community. We should vote for a way of governing which is best for the majority, without forgetting minorities. All of us can do better. As a community we have the capacity to revive a process for gaining proportional representation. We can all be wiser in our voting.

Meanwhile, happy election fever, everyone.

Marie Burge, Mermaid, is a member of the Cooper Institute, which works with groups organized for social change.


Organizations: Cooper Institute

Geographic location: P.E.I.

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