The recently deceased John Lewis, the much admired and one of the very last surviving direct disciples of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, survived the most bruising decades of battling for civil rights for African-Americans. He coined the now-oft repeated warning that democracy is not a state, it is an act.
Last Monday, the people of TT had a chance to act and only 58 per cent of individuals who had the power to act chose to do so. It is not an insignificant event and, allowing for the covid19 factor, could be read in different ways, but it should worry us, because just over half the citizens deciding how this country is run and what its future might be is scant democracy in action.
Such a low voter showing also must be regarded, whether or not one is pleased with the result, as an unreliable reflection of the will of the people of TT. It is only the will of the minority, and that is not without negative consequences.
We might disagree about what democracy actually means, but for me it is the rule of the majority, and the greater the majority the stronger the democracy, and also the easier the country is to govern. A government for which only roughly half the eligible population voted, which is already only about half the overall population, and for which only half of that half voted, is perfectly legitimate but its members cannot feel super-confident.
That reality could possibly affect, even subliminally, the government’s courage to act in the best interests of the majority, whose franchise it does not have, especially when the decisions and policies are intrinsically unpopular. Of course, with a slim parliamentary majority, governing becomes harder, especially when it is a straight two-party split.
Someone suggested to me that another, more positive way to regard the low turnout is as an affirmation of the commitment to and satisfaction with an ideal or a party, on the part of at least half of the eligible voters, which is one element of a healthy democracy. This may be true, and at least the proportion of votes in Monday’s elections were spread evenly enough between the two winning parties, but it is hardly fair representation for all.
It signifies that those who did not vote have no vested interest in the well-being of the country or themselves.
I would be interested to see who voted, their gender, social and economic profile, in order to substantiate my belief and my personal observations that it was the people with the least power who chose not to have a say – the poorest, least educated, the young.
That too is very troublesome, for the important reason that they are numerous and they made a silent statement, even without recognising it as such.
Two unskilled workers told me they didn’t vote because it was, “the same old, same old” and in their constituencies the result was a forgone conclusion. So inevitability obviously provokes inertia.
Another non-voter would not risk possible exposure to covid19 when the government did nothing for her.
We should be asking ourselves the question whether this is symptomatic of societal breakdown and if expectations of government are excessive. How do we encourage people to see and demand that the government work in the national interest and not “my ballot paper for a favour”?
Fellow Newsday columnist Gaby Hosein has signalled the under-representation of women (half the population) in Parliament and the lack of Indo-Trini women MPs in the ruling party. Monday’s election put 11 women into the Lower House, only two of them of Indian ethnicity and both on the opposition benches, where their impact is limited.
Her point that the Parliament does not closely represent the views of large sectors of the community is a valid one, but there is little evidence that gender representation is high on the voters’ agenda.
Yet if we are to build a better future democracy and democratic process we need women also to be leaders in that journey. It is not a question of bean-counting, but women are already doing important jobs and it is a national disservice to overlook them, either carelessly or intentionally. The under-representation of women is a gross inequality of our democracy.
Political developments in the US, however, offer some encouragement. More women are voting and Democratic female candidates significantly increasing, to where we now have an unlikely biracial (Indian-Caribbean) Democratic candidate for US vice president.
One woman can’t win a war, it needs a critical mass and we need learner slopes for people to cut their teeth in politics.
In the absence of any real local government in TT, it is through business, the Judiciary, civil society organisations and public-service roles that women can access platforms to be heard and grow. Then we must funnel them through to positions of political leadership.
We have a female president and former PM, but we must start recognising the bigger problem and know that real transformation requires persistent action.