Saturday, April 19, 2008

Democracy – Is ours the best we can do?

Democracy, elections, voting; these are terms that many of us take for granted, and accept skeptically as the hollow sacred cows of Western society. While most of us accept the principals of our system, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people see voting as a depressingly futile exercise.

The reasons for apathy among voters (and I think young people in particular) are as understandable as they are numerous.
The perception that nothing ever changes is not an irrational or unfounded one. As you are no doubt aware, we have had what has effectively been the same government in power for the last 10 years and we will probably have the same for five more.

To give a sense of the ever stagnant political roundabout which has persisted since the inception of the state, one only has to look over the past 70 years of Irish politics.
Most of this time has seen Fianna Fail as the party in power.

The typically frustrating cowardice of the political scene is bound to further disillusion any prospective voter. If a candidate takes a strong stance on any major issue, especially if it be controversial, he/she is sure to alienate some portion of the electorate.

Therefore, to avoid the shameful practice of actually taking a stance on anything, many politicians feel the need to offer endless rhetoric and platitudes in their manifestos rather than actual opinions.
This is what you and I call politician speak.

How often do you actually hear a public representative make known his/her stance on a difficult issue? Sometimes one would be forgiven for thinking it more likely to see George Bush and Osama Bin Laden chatting amicably down at your local, then to hear a straight answer from a politician.

I barely even blame them, they are people too and don’t want to lose their job as much as the next person. It is we after all, that vote into power habitual say-nothings and ineffectual baby kissers - of course that is not to say that all politicians are like this, some are quite competent at promoting adult-infant public relations.

Despite these annoyances, I do still believe it is worthwhile and important to use one’s vote to influence the democratic process. It’s the best hand out of a poor deck, but having rubbish cards means that at the very least you’re still in the game.

Likewise it is better to have very little say in the running of the country than none at all. Perhaps more people could be pursued to get involved if the current process did not seem so pitifully impotent in its assertion of people power.

I’m not saying that we should change the current PR process or that another way would necessarily be better, but I’ve never heard a serious suggestion of there being other ways of doing things.
And no I’m not talking about a “democracy is weak so a totalitarian loony state is the way forward” kind of idea, but there are purer forms of democracy in use out there.

While on my travels over the summer, I met a guy from Switzerland who informed me of how they operate politically over there. The level of influence each citizen can exert over political decisions is far greater than our own in several ways. They work on the basis of direct democracy, a system that theoretically gives citizens a direct say over any law passed by parliament. If 50,000 signatures against a law passed by parliament can be collected within 100 days, a referendum is scheduled to decide whether the law is ratified or rejected. This means that anyone (provided they can gather support in the form of signatories) can object to any law which they feel to be detrimental to the good of the country, and the matter can then be decided by the majority of the public; not by public officials.

Not only that, but any citizen may propose an amendment to the constitution which must be voted on upon gathering 100,000 signatures. When such a proposal is made, the parliament usually drafts their own alternative - usually a sort of compromise - and then a referendum is held to decide whether to accept the original proposal, the compromise or neither.

To my mind, this sounds like what a healthy democracy promises but often fails to deliver; that is accountability, people power and the possibility of real change.

Would such a system work in this country? I don’t know, but my instincts say why not?

Could giving ordinary people such control over the management of their own country cause them to (shock horror) think for themselves? Would we start caring enough to not take mediocrity and ineptitude lying down? Who knows? Such speculation is surely dangerous talk.

However, it seems hard to imagine that such an empowerment of the public would not inspire people to take a greater interest in the decisions that affect our lives.

So maybe the Swiss model is the way forward, or maybe we are simply happy to repeat our voting habits over and over. What ever the case may be, the issue of how our democracy works is surely worth a debate.

A new model of 21st century democracy need not be deemed far-fetched or so far out of reach.

1 comment:

NH said...

The Swiss model is a bit too much democracy if you ask me. For Ireland to get it's act together is should disband the Seanad as it's far too much of club for politicians who didn't get elected to the Dail. We do not need a president either. The Dail's way of business needs to be restructured particularly Taoiseachs questions.

Also I believe the cabinet should be directly elected to their particular cabinet posts and not picked from constituencies.

I'd also be in favour of teaching our system of government in schools, I'm always amazed at how ppl don't have a clue how a law comes into being or how pr works or how the seaned is made up.