Sunday, March 28, 2010

We must never give up on the power of the ballot

Sunday Nation 28 March 2010

Reports of widespread voter apathy have continued to dog the voter registration process across the country since its launch early last week.

Residents of areas that were significantly affected by the 2008 post-election violence have been the most apathetic, and many have expressed heart-rending sentiments to justify their refusal to register or even consider voting in future.

Many of those that lost loved ones or property have been indicating that if voting means incurring losses that so profoundly affect one’s outlook on life, then it would be better not to vote at all.

Indeed, many put it more graphically than that: There is no point in ever voting again if voting means almost certain death and destruction for ‘‘alien’’ communities.

Elsewhere, the prevalent opinion is that elections have lost meaning since the losers can still cling to power despite what the voters perceive as an overwhelming vote for change.

Many young people feel that elections have lost their lustre as a means of generational change in leadership, and that individual votes no longer count.

These arguments, though different, have exactly the same outcome -- a limited numbers of voters registering and actually voting come Election Day.

The net effect is the continuation of mediocre governance and further unenlightened leadership in the higher echelons of power.

In effect, therefore, whether an individual boycotts the election process because of a bad prior experience or because of a loss of hope in the integrity of the process, they still participate in the process by enabling the election of villains who would otherwise not have been elected.

With a smaller electorate, the thieves and misfits among us will have an easy time organising to buy votes and using other unorthodox means to guarantee their election.

Once in office, we will not have any moral grounds to criticise them when they engage in their thieving ways, since we would have been complicit in their elevation to high office.

Successful societies develop by learning from the negative moments in their history and taking steps to prevent their recurrence.

Indeed, in the societies we often admire and cite as success stories, the citizens play a bigger role in the day to day affairs of governance, holding their leaders to account for every move they make.

This culture is so entrenched in some nations that elections and referenda are not considered special events or causes for alarm.

In fact, recent studies have even demonstrated that these countries have developed very efficient mechanisms for polling citizens’ opinions or holding elections, significantly reducing costs in the process.

The citizens of those countries can rightfully claim to belong to societies that are governed in their own best interests.

On the contrary, struggling ‘‘democracies’’ such as ours still consider elections to be such a big deal that people inevitably end up being killed before, during and after the elections.

The long wait for elections and the high stakes attached by politicians to them are just some of the reasons why conflagrations like the 2008 post-election violence occur.

The biggest reason for election malpractices and violence, however, is that the citizens often get carried away and allow such atrocities to happen.

More developed societies have tightened their systems such that no matter who wins an election, the integrity of the State is assured.

The civil service is insulated from political noise and institutions are in place to resolve any disputes over election malpractices.

Above all, the contestants in an election all agree to abide by decisions made pursuant to written law and even unwritten codes.

In such societies, very little time is given to fellows who spew intolerance and bigotry such as that which characterises our political discourse, and elections are largely won or lost on serious issues of the day.

If we are to get anywhere in our quest to develop into a modern civilised nation, we must first acknowledge that leadership is among the biggest challenges facing our country.

We must start identifying leaders in all spheres of our society who embody the values that we admire about other societies, including those of tolerance and respect for diversity of people and opinions.

We cannot do this when we continue using excuses such as election theft and post-election violence to boycott voter registration and voting at elections and referenda.

Even as we struggle to clean up our institutions and emerge from the current turbulent period a stronger and more confident nation, we must not give up on the power of the citizen’s voice through the ballot.

There is no clearer path to anarchy than a nation full of cynics with no faith in the power to determine their own destiny through a valid, participatory process such as an election!

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University School of Medicine

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