Democracy And Voter Apathy: Threat Or Perception?

Observations on the Jamaica 2020 General Election

by Donna Mattis

Jamaica goes to the polls on 03 September 2020 in what is expected to be the lowest voter turnout in its history. Reason? The continued voter apathy to the system, aggravated by fears surrounding the coronavirus and the daily spike in cases caused by community spread.

Globally, evidence suggests that the electorate is recoiling from participation in the electoral process. This raises issues.  One is the legitimacy of governments, especially in the Westminster model, where a simple majority of one vote gives constitutional consent to form a government.  In a larger context is this an apparent threat – or not – to democracy.

Jamaica 2020 General Election – Party Supporters

Does it matter to the democratic process if the electorate go out in large numbers or not? Is governance any different when it is apparently endorsed by landslide victories or through small margins? Is democracy, as it is presented on paper, served according to the vaunted place it holds as a societal ideal? What does the term democracy that is thrown around so freely in the western political process mean? Should we be rethinking the concept and moving towards making government work for us?

What to We the People is democracy?

In its narrowest of precept, democracy to the politician has been parcelled out to We the People as periodically granting one citizen one vote to elect “representatives” who will work in the interest of all without fear or favour. A utopian framework with a multiplicity of competing interests but devoid of the subordination of any interest (s) to another because government stands immune to any influences and works to uphold the welfare of all the groups (Democracy For The Few, Michael Parenti, 1977). There is no influence that can come to bear on how power is distributed in a functional democracy, or so they would have us believe!

In this plural society of public and private groups, government policies are supposedly shaped through the participation of all the competing groups to produce democratic outcomes for the whole. Theoretically, no group can exercise any influence that would lead to its benefit. All groups compete equally within the system to make their influence felt. Corruption, cronyism and nepotism, for example, are not part of the subset of the democratic society, or so we were conditioned to believe.

Pluralism For The Few And Withdrawal From The Process

Jamaica 2020 General Election – Party Logos

In the infancy of “independence”, Caribbean nations, like many in the global community, went to the polls guided by this optimistic belief in both the process and their political leadership. Gradually though disillusionment, mistrust and indifference have taken hold as the promises of the equitable working of the system have dissipated as government policies are overwhelmingly skewered in the interests of the ruling class at the expense of the vast body of working class people.

Ruling class influence over the legitimate systems and institutions have resulted in grave imbalances as governments, after being elected, bend over to accommodate the interest of a limited portion of their society. Policies are largely framed by the interest of local and external capital.

The result is that the political system has split into two layers: at the summit is the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling class including their mainstream political parties, party machinery and election processes, that legitimize and uphold the injustices and imbalances within the system while at the bottom is the electorate – reduced to voters, observers and an audience rather than actual participants. What this has produced over the years is a steady withdrawal from participation in the election process as many find it futile to exercise their democratic right at the polls.

Election Turnout by Percentage: 1962-2016

Jamaica General Elections – Voter Turnout

But is withdrawal from the system the answer? If participation in the process is the framework on which to protect and evolve democracy does non-participation thwart that citizen obligation? Jamaican academic and author Paul Ivey believes it is a duty of each eligible citizen to cast a vote. For him:

“Voting and participating in the democratic process is key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.” (Active Citizenship: Overcoming Political Apathy in Jamaica)

Here the operative word is change. How do you affect the changes that are needed by withdrawing from the process? It is your participation at the polls, or the recognition of the importance of your continued participation after the polls that count. That crucial moment when you understand that change goes beyond casting your vote will be definitive in democratizing the system to lead to the working of a functional democracy.

Jamaica 2020 General Election – Constituency Map

For democracy to work, it requires the sustained effort of all the people to make it live up to the substantive values that its proponents trumpet! At the heart of the class struggle to level the playing field must be a conglomerate of active voices seeking to equalize the social and economic conditions that continue to favour the subordination of the worker.

The people together are the democratic force that has the power to put the limitations on local capital and its political support system. They are “the major democratic bulwark against plutocracy” (Parenti, 1977). But first, they have to fully understand that casting their votes and sitting back and leaving change to come of itself, or at the hands of politics, without enforcing it will never happen.

It is the lack of engagement that has contributed to the dysfunctional system. Voter apathy is a very omnipotent threat to democracy. The more we stay away from the polls is the more we will slide into that dictatorship and tyranny of the minority both in terms of the control and exploitation by the elite and the power we give to the grassroots, fanatical diehards of both parties, who are prepared to be satisfied with what little favours they can get from their party rather than investing in supporting issues than can result in qualitative changes to their lives —- helping to do their obligatory part in making democracy be what it should be.

Staying away from the polls is a threat to ourselves and the birthing of the very ideals lacking in the system that have caused us to remove ourselves in the first place.

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